Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre opens the month with a powerful and potent play by one of the widely performed playwrights of British theatre, Mark Ravenhill. The Cane is a provocative study of power and its abuses, it examines moral indignation and questions our response to historic injustices.

For director Kirsten von Bibra, the decision to be involved in the project was immediate. “I was very taken with Mark Ravenhill’s writing – it is as flexible, taut and stinging as the cane itself,” she says. “I jumped at the chance to explore such exceptionally crafted ideas that are so tied to our time and current events.’

The Cane was published in 2018 and is uncannily familiar in its themes and ideologies. Universal social conversations going on right now can be eerily mapped for accuracy in its story and characters

“The play confronts us with questions about our relationship to time, memory and ethics,” explains von Bibra. “Specifically, the theme of historical reparation emerges through differing generational perspectives in the play. It asks questions about the moral prism through which we judge the past. What was accepted and tolerated thirty years ago, can be considered morally offensive today. In this case, when looked at from the perspective of today’s moral values, the practice of caning students, which was lawful in its day, is abhorrent.”

“Further themes related to power dynamics, patriarchy, bullying, gas lighting and coercive behavior conjure connections to the #MeToo movement, as well as Cancel Culture, and Enough Is Enough. There is also an underlying theme that opens up differing approaches to education and sows seeds about how the divergent viewpoints may be judged by future generations.”

Von Bibra says the play is one of the most finely crafted pieces of writing she has come across. It is also fiendishly difficult to memorise and perform largely because of the sheer number of interrupted lines and incomplete sentences. But these jagged rhythms are so carefully constructed that they open up the play to our imaginations and create a sense of otherness, of menace and wonderful dramatic tension.

“There are also numerous motifs in the play,” says von Bibra. “For example, there is an inordinate number of adverbs or adverbial phrases of time. We are constantly reminded of ‘now, today, recently, the last few months, then, formerly, five years ago, thirty years ago, the week before, a long time ago’, etc. There is also a haunting sequence of references to nightmare fairytale allusions: ‘covens, witches, evil fairies and wood choppers’ which add to the sense of menace. There is repetition of consonant sounds giving linguistic texture and poetic resonance as well as an extraordinary number of repeated words such as ‘yes, no, ladder, head, coffee, laptop, first aid box and tell them’ to name a few. Repeated phrases with tiny variations, and turns of phrase that often go against the usual/casual way of speaking, or more familiar sentence structure, add to the complexity and marvel of this text.”

For von Bibra, the best part of the rehearsal room process is the shared passion for language and the craft of wordsmithing between herself and the cast. “In particular, we liked the call to decode the play,” she says. “The more significant discoveries we made would require a spoiler alert, so I’ll just refer to a minor example. In the play, there is a somewhat oblique reference to ‘Portuguese Tarts’.  The mother brings in Fair Trade coffee on a tray as well as these tarts.  At first, we wondered if it was the mother’s attempt to virtue signal the Fair Trade coffee and to have something a little exotic in the sweetmeats department. But as we neared opening night, the Portuguese tarts became like a private joke between husband and wife, as if it was a shared memory from the past, which we can only guess at without knowing the context. Of course, it might be nothing of the sort, but it is now a warm moment in the show, and it tells us something of what the mother thinks might impress her guest for whom these refreshments are intended.”

Von Bibra acknowledges that the play has offered some challenges, in particular, to create an attic in a theatre with no fly-tower and a relatively low ceiling. She explains that much time was spent with the set designer, Lara Week, in exploring different ways to conjure an attic that could accommodate a tall actor, within the spatial constraints of our theatre.

“Another technical challenge was to create the sound of the protesting students outside the parents’ house. We had to finely tune the changing characteristics of the mob over time, including the size, make-up and emotion of the mob and its proximity to the front door, amongst numerous other aspects. The sound designer, Adam Casey, and I really felt we were creating another character in the mob, one that is heard and not seen.”

While she feels the playwright is best qualified to answer the question of main message, she concedes that ensemble investigation would suggest it examines abusive power relations between individuals and within institutions. “The portrayal of the father as a patriarch is undeniable; the head of the family who sits in his attic conjures images of the godhead at home and is extended through his role as a deputy head at the school,” she explains. “In particular, It shines light on the hot topic of historical reparation and the complexities of judging past events through the scope of today’s heightened state of moral awareness. As mentioned, issues of power abuse and calls for atonement for past wrongs are acutely pertinent.”

As a director, von Bibra loves plays that raise consciousness of things bigger than ourselves, that make us think and feel beyond the humdrum. “I enjoy plays where language is crafted in such extraordinary ways that we see things in a light that would not have been previously possible,” she says. “Such well-written works inspire actors and creatives alike to give their all. I have directed many classical and contemporary works of this nature, and this preference has not changed over time.”

After the dark year that was COVID, von Bibra is thrilled to be working with actors in a room on the rehearsal floor after such a prolonged lockdown. Most of last year was spent analyzing the play via Zoom. “It was so exciting to return to studio-based practice and to see the actors relate through body, word and heart,” she adds.

Ravenhill’s darkly humorous meditation on institutionalised violence examines how we judge the past, with its different values, by the standards of the present.  Von Bibra’s hope is that the audience will feel recharged by a live theatrical experience and engaged by very real issues relating to our history and the way we view and judge our past.

 April 7 – May 9

Images: Jodie Hutchinson