Tag Archives: Nicola Walker

The Cane – Royal Court

The Cane - Royal Court

Apologising for the past can be an emotive issue; while the physical and metaphorical wounds inflicted by countries, groups or individuals will have irrevocably altered the history of all involved, judging the past by the moral and ethical standards of the modern world is fraught with difficulty. Politicians love to do it, saying sorry to the wronged for everything we now consider to be inexcusable – the British Empire, the various wars of oppression and conquest that pepper our history as well as the acquisition of international treasures that fill most Western museums. But does it serve any real purpose, does apologising for the past become another insincere trick of diplomacy and should we just draw a line in the sand?

The play is set entirely in the house of Edward and Maureen a few days before Edward retires from teaching with a big farewell party planned. But growing crowds of angry pupils have gathered outside his home, incensed by the discovery of his role in caning boys when it was still legal to do so. Under siege for six days, Deputy Head Edward must complete a response to a damning school inspection when his estranged daughter Anna arrives, who works for the Academy group that takes over failing schools. As their family and professional pasts collide, the difference between justice and revenge becomes harder to determine.

Mark Ravenhill’s fascinating new play The Cane examines the issues of culpability for small-scale endorsed acts of violence and the nature of justice. He uses changed attitudes to corporal punishment to consider whether blame and guilt are the right responses to activities sanctioned by codes of practice at the time of infliction. Ravenhill is essentially asking whether these physically and emotionally scarring experiences should be pursued and scrupulously re-examined. A precedent set by the prosecution of historic cases of sexual assault and exposure of the culture of ingrained toxic masculinity have led to arrests and convictions, so should teacher-pupil violence be treated with the same seriousness?

To help us to decide, two questions run through the play, asking where the effects of crime endure should such cases be prosecuted, and at what point should the past be allowed to be the past? Using the school as a setting for this debate is a useful one, allowing Ravenhill to play with our societal nostalgia for the order and discipline of yesteryear where teachers were respected and power structures enforced with clear consequences for any misdemeanour. Yet, the cost of course was a state-sanctioned policy of violence against children in ways that seem unfathomable and outrageous to the modern eye. Was the world a genuinely better place when the cane was in use, turning-out educated pupils who went on to be model members of society, or did it produce scared and repressed individuals, haunted for the rest of their lives by the violation of their childhood by a trusted adult?

Our hazy fondness for the mythology of our past is a dangerous thing, one that entirely conflicts with our fetishisation of violence and its instruments that underlie much of British national identity. One of The Cane’s key strands focuses on the protection and preservation of the objects of caning, a reverence for them as historic artefacts that latterly belies their daily use. There is something here about the way we take objects out of context and purpose, putting them in glass boxes that bestows on them a reverence at odds with their functional use (e.g. an eighteenth-century chair was still just a chair to its original owner) and sanitises them, stripping them of their created purpose. Denuded of their reality, how innocent suits of armour, swords and guns look in museums never telling you how many deaths they were responsible for.

But this is far more than a treatise on corporal punishment and Ravenhill weaves all of these debates into an engaging and powerful three-hander that centres around a difficult family reunion that looks likely to explode at any time. Right from the start the difficulty of the relationship between Anna and her parents is clear, there is an immediate atmosphere, with the audience arriving in the middle of an already awkward encounter. Quickly Maureen suggests an estrangement, even an enmity between mother and daughter based on a tendency to violence that Anna claims not to remember.

As the story unfolds, Ravenhill toys with ideas of reconciliation and rapprochement as Anna and Edward in particular start to find common ground by working on his report together. Much of the drive in Vicky Featherstone’s 95-minute production comes from this power shift as various members of the family join forces against one another, as they confront their own difficult past as well as exploring Edward and Anna’s professional differences in approaches to caning. But this animosity is also entirely manipulated by Anna at particular moments in order to settle a score with her parents for past hurts, and while she genuinely seems to engage with them looking for bridges to build, at the same time she is an unpredictable force in the play whose motives and relationship with violence is not nearly as clear cut as we first assume.

This tendency to personal violence is really interesting and something that rips through The Cane, contrasting the educationally authorised violence of corporal punishment with the individual tempers of the characters that implies rather than demonstrates a history of home-based intimidation that is intriguing. Characters are accused of violent acts in the domestic and professional spheres but only two destructive incidents are shown, one driven by a hypnotic nostalgia and one surprising act of pure malice. Ravenhill is deliberately restrained here, not giving away too much, but allowing droplets of information to emerge that the audience can combine to form a picture of their lives, of relationships soured by years of recrimination. This is a snapshot of what feel like credibly larger lives, asking whether a single incident can and should shape our entire opinion of them; is what we see of these people on stage all that they are, boiled down to one mistake.

For a while at the start Edward does not appear, noted to be upstairs writing a report in his daughter’s old bedroom now a study, so the audience is left to wonder whether it will be the accused teacher or the tardy headmaster who has promised an ‘offsite’ visit to the besieged family that will complete the trio of characters. When Alan Armstrong’s Edward eventually emerges, he is entirely perplexed by and dismissive of the maelstrom around him. A career educator, Edward has only ever followed the rules prescribed at the time and Armstrong shows a man who believes his actions were never cruel or abusive, that he viewed caning as one of many acts of discipline chosen in response to extreme behaviour, something he delivered with no sense of enjoyment or even judgement at the time. Crucially, that it existed within a transparent correctional structure of which the pupils were aware, with every instance recorded and countersigned, and with the active permission of the child’s parents – a degree of adult collusion that muddies the waters.

This rationality and desire to leave the past alone, makes Edward such an interesting character, but it is the things that other people say about him that affects the subtleties of Armstrong’s performance. As the tables turn between them, his wife describes a temper and feeling of intimidation that we never see, while Anna goads him into behaviour that reveals a low-level hatred between them. While Armstrong’s Edward remains relatively composed throughout, despite what he perceives to be the unfairness of the protest, we see underneath that he is capable of the behaviour the women describe and perhaps his innate tendency to casual acts of violence is unknown to himself.

Providing an equally intriguing balance of violence and placidity is Nicola Walker’s Anna, whose appearance in the family home does more to unsettle her troubled parents than the mob beyond the walls. The mutual hostility creates an intriguing tension at the heart of the drama which prevent us from knowing whether Anna’s role is to provide professional assistance or to settle a domestic score. Why she chooses to return at this moment of conflict after years apart is ambiguous, with Walker suggesting both an opportunity to forward the Academy agenda and a desire for her own children to engage with their grandparents.

For the most part, like Edward, Anna is very much the rational adult, clearly stung by the unfeeling actions of her parents but offering ideas to manage and contain the explosive situation on their behalf. Yet we also hear of extreme acts of violence from other characters that Anna claims not to remember, and initially Walker makes us believe she has no memory of these events. As the story unfolds, her behaviour becomes notably more unstable, not manic, but Walker creates a subtle build-up of pressure that turns the scenario to her ultimate advantage, leaving us wondering whether the man with the cane who operated in full daylight is the real monster after all.

Maureen is the least complete character of the three, and while Maggie Steed imbues her with plenty of fear, loathing and a tendency to bitterness, she is given far less to do. In some ways, she could be the most interesting creation, a former teacher herself who The Cane implies may have stopped working to have a disappointing child, and who has taken her husband’s part in life, with almost no maternal instinct for her daughter. Clinging to her own idea of structure – her husband’s party on Friday, the impending visit of the Godot-like headmaster who never comes – as alliances reform themselves there seems to be more for Maureen to say about the choices she has made and the future ahead.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a spare and neglected room full of peeling wallpaper, broken staircases and vast emptiness where this family’s emotion for one another has long since departed. As the tension mounts the ceiling lowers to give the feeling of the walls closing in on Edward as the past and future eventually come together. Ravenhill’s play begins an interesting debate about how present the past ought to be and the extent to which individuals and nations need to seek forgiveness for acts conducted in an entirely different moral framework. The irony of students violently protesting outside a teacher’s door is not lost, the incident of caning, a form of personal violence, resulting in a modern display of public violence that is now acceptable. The rights of today become the wrongs of tomorrow so perhaps we need to be more careful about apologising for the past, in a few decades time it may be required of us as well.

The Cane is at the Royal Court until 2 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


A View from the Bridge – Wyndhams Theatre

Independently The Young Vic and the Wyndhams have been having quite a run of form with back-to-back critically acclaimed productions, so it was only a matter of time before they joined forces. Last year the Wyndhams played host to Cary Mulligan’s West End debut alongside Bill Nighy in the impressive Skylight, followed by the Charles III transferring from the Almeida, and will soon welcome Damien Lewis and Jon Goodman in American Buffalo. The Young Vic too had hit after hit, notably a pulsating Streetcar Named Desire and this remarkable version of A View from the Bridge, undoubtedly the best production of last year, transferring to the Wyndhams for a brief and welcome reprise.

It’s pretty rare for me to give an unequivocal five stars to any production and to do so twice in less than a year is unheard of, which should give you some indication of how very special this production is. Some give out five star reviews quite readily, but honestly I can think of only four productions I’ve ever seen that I would say were genuinely five star. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of really great shows and some of our finest actors which I’ve really enjoyed, but a truly five star production is something more than good acting/script/production values or the frisson of seeing a famous star, it has something I can only describe as an added ‘magic’. It means you don’t just empathise with the characters you live it with them – at the risk of sounding even more pretentious, the play becomes transcendental and nothing else exists except what’s happening on that stage.

It’s interesting then having been fulsome in my praise of this production last year to have the chance to watch it again. How could it possibly live up to that expectation, surely I couldn’t feel the same about it now I’d seen all the tricks? But in all honesty, this is every bit as incredible as it was last May, gripping, emotionally wrought and utterly mesmerising. It’s the story of Eddie Carbone, a dock worker living happily in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge with his wife and teenage niece. As the play opens the niece Catherine has a new job and Eddie’s dilemma begins; he wants to protect her and has in mind a glorious future she deserves, perhaps in Manhattan – a future that a woman in her position is unlikely to attain. Their situation is further muddied when Catherine falls in love with Rodolpho who is working illegally in the US and living with the Carbones. What follows is an epic struggle where Eddie, a man who ‘never knew he had a destiny’ finds he cannot escape it.

So much about Ivo van Hove’s interpretation is so simple, just the actors and the words in a confined space to emphasise the inevitability of what is happening to them, as well as the limitations of their community. Where innovations are used, they enhance the storytelling rather than distract, and it’s great to see the design transfer so successfully from the Young Vic. There, this was performed on a three-sided thrust stage and the Wyndhams only has a proscenium arch, but the giant black-box remains with the lid rising up instead of a curtain to reveal the players caught inside. And this does mean that incredibly ending is retained– I’m not going to spoil this for you, but it’s every bit as bold and electrifying as last year. And the Wyndhams have cleverly added four rows of stage seating in the wings which means you get right up close to the action and I recommend booking these if you can for that all-involving experience as well as a bit of potential celebrity spotting- Rupert Everett was nearby when I went.

Seeing this for the second time gave me a better chance to see the various layers of performance and although I referenced the themes of masculinity and honour in my previous review, these elements came across even more strongly this time, through Eddie’s competitive boxing with the young Rodolpho and mocking his looks and singing, designed to show Catherine he’s somehow less of a man. Even a small scene when Eddie and Marco (Rodolpho’s brother) undergo a test of strength is a glimpse into their need for manly display and the battle between the generations – challenging the dominant male in the pack.

The acting is perfect and seeing it again showed how all the characters are complicit in events, from Nicola Walker’s resigned Beatrice (Eddie’s wife), quietly trying to separate her husband from her niece, to Phoebe Fox’s stifled Catherine struggling to attain the life she wants rather than the one Eddie wants her to have. Mark Strong’s performance as Eddie is sublime; a mass of contradictions utterly unaware of the fatal flaw that drives him to destruction – completely believable, blind and heart-breaking. Towards the end when the tension is at its highest point and you don’t think your emotions can take any more, Strong powers to a new level as Eddie demands respect for his name, it’s amazing.

I said earlier that you live a five star production with the characters, and this is the most compelling aspect of this show. You feel every emotional flicker, every change of tone and as the doom plays out you will want to run up to them and beg the characters to stop. You’ll want to shake Eddie until he sees what he’s doing because you just know it’s going to end very very badly and there’s no way to stop it. By the way, talking to the actors and generally involving yourself in the production is frowned upon, so you’ll just have to sit there and watch it all happen as powerless to stop it as the characters themselves.

Last year I wrote that ‘the drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times’ and the force of it is something that stayed with me in between. This was certainly true the second time as well and I left the theatre feeling shaken by what I’d seen. So this production has thoroughly earned its collective ten stars from me, and if you never see another piece of theatre for the rest of your life, make sure you see this. You’ll never forget it.

A View from the Bridge is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 April and tickets start at £19.50 for the balcony and on-stage seating, and a range of prices for the rest of the auditorium. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


A View from the Bridge – Young Vic

I should start by saying that this is the best production I’ve seen so far this year but I wasn’t expecting it to be. I’ve only experience one other Arthur Miller play before, an A-Level Theatre Studies visit to The Crucible showing in Canterbury, which was one of the most tedious evenings I have ever spent and several of my classmates fell asleep. So The Crucible and The Doll’s House are probably the only two plays that I will never see again – I appreciate they are much loved, but you could not pay me enough. The Young Vic’s version of A View From the Bridge however is an astounding piece of theatre.

Eddie Carbone lives with his wife Beatrice and their orphaned niece Catherine in a small Italian-American community close to the Brooklyn Bridge in 1950s New York. In the opening scenes we see the strong bond between the 17-year-old Catherine and her uncle but their happiness is disrupted by the arrival of Italian immigrant brother Marco and Rodolpho who have entered the US illegally to work in the area. As Catherine and Rodolpho grow closer, Eddie’s possessive love for her begins to infect the family, leading to a terrible betrayal with shattering consequences.

This is a true Shakespearian-style tragedy – a protagonist with a fatal flaw which, unrecognised by him, leads to his eventual destruction. The decision to run the play straight through with no interval adds to this sense of entrapment and gives a compelling drive to the events before you. Mark Strong is amazing as the troubled Eddie, initially a respected member of the community whose unwillingness to allow his niece her freedom becomes an obsessive compulsion to save her from a man he sees as ‘not right’. He dreams she will have a better life, perhaps across the bridge in Manhattan. Everyone around him sees his love for her has become corrupted and inappropriate, but he cannot admit this to himself. Simultaneously, Eddie is a very macho figure, a hard-working man, respected and keen to display his masculine traits in impromptu bouts of boxing and belief in ‘respect’.  Strong’s performance brilliantly captures these multiple sides to Eddie, all with an intensity that is utterly gripping – the overt manliness, the need for control and the protective emotional fixation with Catherine. It is a remarkable performance which makes the conclusion all the more devastating.

There is not a weak link in the rest of the cast either. Nicola Walker brings a real sadness to Eddie’s wife Beatrice who powerlessly and resignedly observes the changing relationship of her husband and niece. She keeps the family together, turning a blind eye until it must be confronted. Phoebe Fox’s Catherine has to grow-up in front of the audience and watching her childlike idolatry of Eddie curdle into confusion and revulsion was impressive. The Italian brothers and Eddie’s lawyer friend, who acts as the Chorus are also excellent, with the latter becoming more dishevelled as the play goes on emphasising the incurable decay at the heart of the family.

Significant praise must also go to the director Ivo van Hove and the design team for some extremely bold decisions that enhance the tragic story. The set is an empty black box and the top lifts up for us to see the caged characters trapped in their world. They all hope for better lives but none of them will escape this setting. Throughout we get a subtle mixture of musical styles from melancholic choral works to tapped beats that ratchet-up the confrontational tension. The final scene is a masterstroke which I won’t spoil for you, but it is wholly shocking and a little bit awe-inspiring in its daring.

Critics often use the word ‘powerful’ to describe intensely dramatic theatre, but here the adjective assumes its full meaning. The drama in this breath-taking production thumps into you and when you’re down kicks you a few more times, but it’s worth it. The respectful silence that followed the curtain going down was followed by resounding applause and a near entire audience on its feet. You will be profoundly moved and emotionally wrought at the end, knowing you have experienced a very special piece of theatre. My perfect-view ticket only cost £10 but delivered many many times its value. I may never want to see The Crucible again but A View from the Bridge will stick in the memory for a very long time.

A View From the Bridge is at the Young Vic until 26 May. The show is understandably sold out but £5 standing tickets and day seats are available from the box office.


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