You can’t put subtitle on a stage. I know that’s not something you’re supposed to think about but that’s what has refrained me from watching plays since I arrived in London. Then this week-end two things happened. I watched Atonement and my colleague went to see The Ruling Class.
Since she enjoyed it ok and since she’s always of good advice, I found myself thinking, on Tuesday morning, that it would be nice to actually see the play. Before lunchtime I decided I wanted to go. After eating, I took my ticket and Tuesday, at 7:30 PM, here was I, excited as a flea (that’s what we say in French. Just picture me very excited but very dignified- I am always dignified) sitting in Trafalgar Studio, waiting for the play to begin.
I would like to say you are about to read a professional and enlightened review of Jamie Lloyd’s The Ruling Class, which is at Trafalgar studios until April. Truth is when it comes to that version of Peter Barnes’ play, I don’t know where respectful admiration ends and blind fan-girling begins. There are two main reasons why I might not know where this thin line is crossed. Firstly, the main actor completely steals the show and there would be no point in talking about the play without talking about his performance. Secondly, the main actor happens to be Scottish heartthrob James McAvoy and I happen to deeply appreciate his talent. That’s where fan-girling might happen.
Like I said earlier, it was my first play in London. Without saying I am a hardcore fan, I enjoy an on-stage performance every now and then. What I like about theatre is that there is no cheating. Things are happening right under your eyes and they are more passionate, more alive, more direct, more impressive. There might be nice lights, nice sets and nice costumes but in the end, the only things that remain are the actors and the audience. The formers are naked and they deliver their raw emotions while the latters scrutinize. It is less cold and distant than movies, it’s less polished and it feels more real. But what is an asset can also be a weakness when the actors fail to take you along the play and you have to struggle to keep your attention on what’s happening on the stage in front of you.
Spoiler: you don’t struggle when what you have on stage is James McAvoy riding a monocycle in his underwear. Not that it’s the only thing worth noticing.
The Ruling Class was written in 1968. It tells the story of Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, who, at his father’s death, inherits the family’s estate and fortune. His uncle, aunt and cousin find the idea quite dreadful since Jack, who spent the last decade-or-so being a monk, now believes he is God’s incarnation on earth. They are decided to find a trick to put him away and take his properties for themselves. He, well, let them do as he is very busy being called JC and sharing god’s love all around him.
This first part of the play is brilliant. It’s funny and witty and it doesn’t fail to point some flaws that can be seen in the aristocracy. Anthony O’Donnell, as Tucker, the family’s secretly-communist servant serves the comedy well alongside Joshua McGuire, as Dinsdale Gurney the politician-to-be cousin. Serena Evans and Ron Cook as Sir and Lady Gurney are less free to express their comic side but their characters are made funny by context.
Amongst all of them, James McAvoy shines. He jumps, bounces, dances, laughs hysterically, gives love and smiles. He is cheeky, mischievous, charming and totally out of control. He is powerful and he doesn’t spare his energy.
All of that changes for the second part of the play. Jack is no longer the god of love and the world his inner world gets darker. The world he lives in too. No more jumping, no more smiling, he is stiff, serious and tormented, dressed in black surrounded by withered flowers. The atmosphere evolves to become grim and gloomy. The play gets more acerbic and cynical. It is true that the first part is more charming and easy to watch but it is also interesting to see where the mind wanders and where it gets lost.