A dozen years have passed since Mark Ravenhill muddied the waters of good taste with his game-changing, ultra violent, in-your-face play Shopping and F***ing. Its graphic descriptions of drug abuse and gay sex had the same shock value as Sarah Kane’s Blasted two years earlier at the same address. But if his new play The Cane is anything to go by, growing older has mellowed him. With the exception of a few obligatory Anglo Saxon expletives and the occasional temper tantrum, there’s nothing here to offend. In fact, it’s much ado about very little.
The central character is Edward (Alun Armstrong), a popular deputy headmaster of a boy’s school whose imminent retirement after 45 years of loyal service is blighted when a group of about 100 boys surround his house, throw a brick through the window and virtually hold him and his wife hostage for six days.
What on earth, you wonder, is going on? Is he a paedophile? A child rapist? A bigamist? A racist? A serial embezzler of school funds? None of the above. Turns out that, like many male teachers of a certain age, he inflicted corporal punishment on naughty schoolboys when it was perfectly legal to do so. In 1986 when caning was abolished, he stopped. There was never any sadism in his methods, and like so many of his contemporaries he used the cane to the letter of the law, drew blood only once at the very beginning of his career, and wasn’t even an advocate of the practice. As was required, he kept a ledger of the canings, every one of which had to be approved by the headmaster and parents of the boy in question. He also kept the actual cane, thought to be about 145 years old, wrapped up in a blanket and stored in his attic.
What we’re being asked to accept is that the boys are seeking some kind of historic retribution from Edward, even though not one was ever caned by him. Why would a group of kids hound a popular master who never laid a hand on them and who is about to retire in a couple of days?
It's not just the pesky school kids Edward has to contend with, but his wife Maureen (Maggie Steed), who on occasion brings out the short-tempered bully in him. Even worse is his estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker), the head of an academy school with her own rigid views on the “best practices,” as she puts it, concerning contemporary methods of education. Corporal punishment, for example, she calls “institutional violence.”
From an early age there was no love lost between father and daughter. Once she chased him with an axe, hurling abuse and screaming she wanted to cut off his head, embedding the axe into the wall and damaging the wallpaper instead. Years later he got his revenge by making a bonfire of her possessions when she left home. So what was it that turned Anna into such a young tearaway? Power politics? We’re never told.
Vicky Featherstone’s direction draws excellent performances from Armstrong, Steed and Walker, while Chloe Lamford’s appropriately bleak wallpapered set, with its eerily descending ceiling and the cold grey attic it reveals, gives the impression there is more to Ravenhill’s play than its narrative might suggest. Indeed, the blurb on the printed text tells us The Cane “explores power, control and identity as well as considering the major failure of the echo-chamber of liberalism.” Really? Could have fooled me.