Theatre Review: The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

Having seen a few rather pedestrian, slightly flabby plays recently, watching Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me and every bit as refreshing, exhilarating and – at times – uncomfortable.

Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a messiah complex, Jack (James McAvoy) has been hidden away in a mental health institution for many years where he was treated by a Dr Herder (Elliot Levy). Following the death of his father in a rather 1990s MP style accident, Jack inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney and much to the annoyance of his family – notably his uncle, the ghastly Sir Charles Gurney (a brilliantly terse Ron Cook), Jack checks himself out of hospital determined to throw himself into his new role.

Shadowing him is Herder who believes he can cure Jack before his family disinherit this mad upstart. The play riffs off the similarity between an entitled a member of the ruling classes with a seat in the House of Lords and a paranoid schizophrenic whose messiah complex marks him out as unwell when his symptoms are strikingly like those he shares a house and a House with.

With a play as frenetic and as politically charged as Peter Barnes‘, no director could approach The Ruling Class with timidity. Jamie Lloyd, whose Trafalgar Transformed series has proved he’s not afraid to turn the theatrics up to 11, approaches The Ruling Classes with the required gusto. Equally as committed is James McAvoy as Jack Gurney whose performance is one of the best – and bravest – I’ve seen on stage. He’s very well supported by a brilliant cast particularly Anthony O’Donnell as the once trusty now mostly tipsy butler Tucker, but the production is McAvoy’s who even manages to convince during the balmier and borderline toe curling music hall moments.

Another star is Barnes’ script which is astonishingly dexterous. He threads through the themes and changes in tone to the narrative with an ease that defies the rapid pace and the subject matter which is far more searing than the comedy of the play lets on. For all the play’s radicalness – and I can presume it was particularly radical in 1968 – Barnes’s writing is peppered with Shakespearean and Biblical references that are added to the stew of theatrical influences of music hall and Ealing comedies.

The production is fittingly insane and gets even more surreal the better Jack gets.  I found it eyeliner ruiningly funny, even the obvious jokes had me giggling (I saw an Etonian buffoon talking LOUDLY and sloooowly to the foreign Helder, but still laughed like a loon). And while there was a charming surrealism to The Ruling Class, it’s grounded in its political agenda and Barnes doesn’t flinch from his criticism of a morally bankrupt upper class and the profiteering of those at the top at the expense of people further down the class chain. This play may have been written in the 1960s, but it highlights the huge divide between the Haves and Have-Nots that is more relevant today than it has been for years.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lloyd’s production has proven a divisive one; I can see how people could be squeamish to its frantic pace, unsubtle political message and the play’s more surreal moments that, at one point, see McAvoy unicycling in his pants. This production chucks it all at you and you either enjoy the jolt or you recoil. I relished every caustic slap. by Suzanne Elliott The Ruling Class | Trafalgar Studios | Until 11th April

Theatre Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

Image

James McAvoy as Macbeth

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth is the inaugural play in a season of work for Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios and it’s a brutal, intense, powerful and physical piece of theatre that’s restless and electric from the minute the three witches emerge from trap doors.

The ‘stage’ is a post-apocalyptic vision – all upturned metal chairs and utility tables; the characters in filthy army fatigues – in a non-determined time that could be the near past or near future. It was very 28 Days Later; the starkness adding its own neurosis to Shakespeare’s play about the occult and the blood-thirsty and power-hungry.

Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t need histrionics to stir the emotions and get the heart thumping, but the savagery of the newly configured stage and the physicality of this production sidelines the hocus pocus and brings out the bloodiness and horror behind the witches and ghostly daggers.

This has been billed as a James McAvoy vehicle, but it’s far more than that. If anything, McAvoy threatens to be overshadowed by both the powerful staging and the other actors. There’s been some debate (well, an article in The Independent) as to whether McAvoy is too young to play Macbeth. Shakespeare never specifies his age, but the character has traditionally been played by those in their late 30s or older. McAvoy – and his partner in crime Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth for that matter – might not be too young, but they look it, and their baby faces do make it harder to believe that these are two power-hungry tyrants who go around thrusting daggers through children’s heads. But while McAvoy might not quite convinced as a warrior, he does mad very well, writhing on tables and spitting out his demons with a rabid intensity.

Lady Macbeth has become shorthand for the ultimate malevolent wife, but she’s not purely evil. An ambiguous character, she’s a woman who begs to be bad, but ultimately isn’t bad enough – the last remaining speck of goodness is what ultimately leads to her demise. Still, she’s manipulative enough to persuade her husband to kill the King of Scotland while many women can’t even persuade their partners to make them a cup of tea so she’s no sweetheart.

The super slight Foy though, doesn’t look like a grand manipulator and I’m not sure whether it was her youthfulness that meant I didn’t quite believe in Foy as Lady Macbeth. A great angsty actress, Foy rather struggled to fill Shakespeare’s great villaness’ well-worn shoes, never quite seeming powerful and strong enough for a woman who could encourage her husband to commit regicide. For an actress who usually excels in shouty parts, Foy was at her best during the sleepwalking scene when she caught the vulnerability and fear of the Lady’s
nocturnal stirrings very movingly.

McAvoy and Foy were ably supported by a brilliant cast with standout performances from Forbes Masson as Banquo and Jamie Ballard as Macduff while Allison McKenzie’s brief turn as his about-to-be-murdered wife was eye-catching.

The screams of delight from the adolescents in the audience (of which there were many) is testament to the pull of a Hollywood star, but this is far more than a one-man show.

Macbeth is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April 2013. For ticket information, including £15 Monday tickets, click here.