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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Cane
Royal Court Theatre  Winter 2018-2019

Playwright Mark Ravenhill does not think well of British schools.

In the past they were brutal places, in the present they are failing the students, and in the future judging from the currently fashionable model of privately-run academies they will be dehumanising robot-creating factories.

Moreover, the people involved in teaching and administration were, are and will be fighting their own personal psychological and moral demons, so that the children in their care were, are and will be the victims, collateral damage in their private wars.

Ravenhill offers no solutions, nor is he obliged to. But his presentation is a little too one-sided and riddled with holes to be as convincing or despair-inducing as he would wish.

A veteran teacher is retiring after forty-five years in the same school. Back when corporal punishment was allowed, it was he who had the task of striking offending boys on the hand with a cane. Today's students have somehow discovered that, and demonstrations of their outrage are turning toward mob violence.

Meanwhile, the school itself has gone downhill and is in imminent danger of being taken over by the education authorities, and probably handed over to a firm that manages academies.

Although his wife supports him as she always has, the couple's grown daughter sides with the academies and even the mob. But her position is made suspect by a lifetime of antagonism toward her father as a child she attacked him with an axe, for reasons never fully explained, and she betrays an unmistakable satisfaction and even glee in his downfall now.

Ravenhill's play shows how the personal and political/pedagogic stories are inseparable and how they contaminate each other, and he is strikingly even-handed in the way that no one comes out of his presentation looking good.

But a secondary theme emerges from the play and Vicky Featherstone's direction, one that (possibly deliberately) muddies the seeming clarity of his vision.

As in the real-world cases of historic sexual abuse that no doubt partly generated this play, there can be no question whatever that the crimes of the past were crimes. But the play allows or even invites you to find something troubling about judging the past by modern standards of right and wrong.

The practice of hitting students decades ago was unquestionably wrong, but it was the accepted and legal practice, and it is never suggested that this particular teacher was any worse or more sadistic than his counterparts in every other school in the land.

As even-handed as the play tries to be, the father played with quiet sincerity by Alun Armstrong becomes far more sympathetic than the daughter to whom Nicola Walker skilfully gives an increasingly evident private agenda that undercuts her moral authority.

Meanwhile Maggie Steed as the wife and mother bravely lets her character sink into insignificance as what seemed like admirable loyalty to her husband begins to look more like cowardly avoidance of any judgments or decisions.

The Cane is a passionate play and a thought-provoking one. But after evidently setting out to damn everyone, it seems to stumble its way into taking sides.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Cane - Royal Court Theatre 2018  
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