Corporal punishment was outlawed in schools in the UK in 1986, but how would children today react if they discovered that one of their teachers had regularly delivered five strokes of the cane to a small, steely hand in the name of discipline?
This is the theme which 52-year-old English playwright Mark Ravenhill address in his latest work The Cane (Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs) directed by Vicky Feathertone.
After 45 years as a dedicated teacher, Edward is looking forward to the imminent celebration to mark his retirement. A mob of angry students who have unearthed evidence of his canings, have gathered outside his home. A brick has been thrown through the window, he and his wife haven't left the house for six days, and now his estranged daughter has arrived with her own questions. The tense three-hander evolves from there, the characters sparring over the moral issues. Once the cane is brought down from the attic, it is only a matter of time before it put to use.
This is not a play which is out to shock, but it is designed to provoke audiences with the thorny debate at its heart: how accountable should we be for actions in the past, when social values were very different? Ravenhill here explores power, control and identity, as well as consolidating the major failure of the echo chamber of liberalism. But the trouble is that while the play is dealing with an emotive subject, there is a lack of emotional involvement with the characters, and situations and the dialogue is needlessly repetitive – the word 'cane' is mentioned at least a dozen times – and awkward, so that rather than seeming like natural speech, the characters often appear to be either making statements or lecturing us.
Alun Armstrong brings a degree of humanity to the role of Edward, expressing guilt and shame at times as well as seeing an honourable tradition in the cane. Nicola Walker as his daughter, on the other hand, representative of a new wave of jargon-savvy academy teachers, calls it "institutionalised violence." Maggie Steed endeavours to make the most of an underwritten role as Edward's wife.
The clash of generational value played out over the scars of a tumultuous family history should have been insightful and thought-provoking but lacks the necessary depth and passion to make us really care.
A major disappointment!
Runs until Saturday 26 January 2019.
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