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.