Season two of Trafalgar Transformed has a relevant and exciting line-up with its season of politically charged plays: Richard III, East is East and now The Ruling Class. With the entire season bringing awareness to the looming general election, the subject of class is highly prominent.
In The Ruling Class, written by Peter Barnes, an eccentric English lord accidentally hangs himself, leaving his vast inheritance open to his only living son Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney. Wonderfully, Jack happens to be a schizophrenic who thinks he is God. In fear, the Gurney family plot to strip Jack of his inheritance by declaring him mentally ill, but it turns out there is a thin line between an earl’s idiosyncrasies and complete insanity. Act Two takes a much darker turn when Jack’s murderous instincts and Jack the Ripper qualities arise. Despite this, these new qualities are those which gain him acceptance into the Lord of Commons, hilariously conveyed with ancient skeleton-men covered in cobwebs.
James Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class is surreal and entertaining. It has a Brechtian quality, with the characters breaking into songs and comic dances; somehow this works brilliantly as it shocks the audience into realising the ridiculousness of the situation, whilst making a comment on the action.
Issues are certainly raised and shock tactics successfully used to highlight the power of the ruling class. Yet, whether a director can help this or not, the political message of the piece is entirely overshone by James McAvoy’s performance. The agility that McAvoy presents on stage is remarkable. He almost dances through his actions with seamless grace and confidence. This role is by no means easy to portray for the best of actors, and the risks McAvoy takes with his character is on the knife edge between brilliance and embarrassment. However, he is so engrossing and captivating that it clearly pushes his performance into a truly extraordinary sight to see.
Idiosyncrasies flow through McAvoy’s performance but the most impressive attribute is his command of words. In a dark moment of the play, McAvoy’s character Jack states that he is the “marshal of words”, whilst absorbingly using his hand to gesture pulling the words out of his mouth. This is true of McAvoy as well, with his highly specific choices of how he utilises the text: the bravery and passion with which he spits, caresses and manipulates words is a sheer joy to witness.
I was very aware not to become biased and influenced by McAvoy’s stardom, wondering to myself whether, if this was an unknown actor, would this character be ridiculous? Can McAvoy just get away with this because he’s famous? The answer is no. If any other young actor showed the same range, command and charisma as McAvoy, they would have the same recognition. McAvoy deserves the status he has and is truly a must-see.
The entire cast has a wonderful strength, especially Ron Cook who plays Sir Charles Gurney. Cook manages to convey the typical English upper-class stereotype with hilarity and flare. The working class of the piece are almost solely represented by the family servant Tucker, played by Anthony O’Donnell. Tucker was once a loyal servant who inherits some of the money from his master’s death; however, even after he earns his freedom he cannot – out of fear – bring himself to stop serving, as its all he’s ever done. Yet, amusingly, it doesn’t stop him from saying exactly what he thinks.
Lloyd’s clever production makes all the characters almost touchable as some of them address the audience directly. This is thrilling, especially with a production that has a name in it like McAvoy’s – as an audience you expect to be kept at a distance. Yet McAvoy’s conducting of the audience and direct address in such an intimate venue works perfectly with the play’s sense of satire.
Barnes’s writing is a mix of comedy and ridicule, but some of the most surreal moments of the second half of the play do jar with what precedes it – for example, Jack’s wrestling with a huge furry creature! Without such conviction from the cast this could have almost been laughable, yet somehow Lloyd makes this work and it gives the play even more leverage to take the ridicule of certain upper-class pastimes further. A particularly excellent example of this is the singing of the Etonian boating song between Jack and his mental health assuror, which comes across exactly like all the other insane songs sung during the show; yet it is this class bond of their school system that grants Jack his claim to sanity.
Does The Ruling Class make me question the class divide of today? Not extremely, but the acting is second to none, the production is one of the bravest I have ever seen and James McAvoy rides a unicycle. It’s truly remarkable.
The Ruling Class is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website. Photo by Johan Persson.