By Darby Turnbull
Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane presented at Red Stitch is a timely evocation of the problematic legacies of people still living being held to account from a modern, 21st century lens. Edward (Dion Mills) a state schoolteacher has worked at the same school for 45 years and on the eve of his retirement it comes to light that in his role as deputy headmaster he administered canings to pupils before it was outlawed. Outside, his and his wife Maureen (Caroline Lee)’s home an increasing rabble of outraged protestors keep them held hostage inside as their estranged daughter Anna (Jessica Clarke) returns home to bring up uncomfortable truths and memories. Ravenhill’s exploration into of individual autonomy in institutional violence finds an ideal balance within the institution of the family; and the emotional, psychological and physical violence that exists within. Anna, the prodigal daughter, has become a bureaucrat who works within the academy system that privatises struggling or failing state funded schools. Edward and Maureen see this as treasonous to their principles and haven’t spoken to her in years. Ravenhill’s texts strongest elements centre on the toxic dynamics of this family unit. Casual cruelty and condescension make way for weaponizing one member against the other; shifting alliances and scapegoats as it suits their purpose.
Maureen, played by a withering Caroline Lee is a self-made snob. Her pointed disdain for her daughter and the students protesting outside make for some painfully hilarious take downs and one liners; she has no problems calling the mob outside ‘snowflakes’ who are stirring up trouble for the sake of it. Her narrow-minded propriety serves an all too important purpose in protecting herself from her egotistical, bullying husband who is the centre of her world. Caroline Lee profoundly explores the pathos of someone whose fear, bitterness and wilful repression have made their world so small there’s little chance for escape.
Dion Mills imbues Edward with a studied eccentricity and occasional flamboyance which speak volumes as to how he would have performed for his students. He is particularly good at finding shades in the amicable even jovial banality of the state (and parent) sanctioned violence he inflicted and the petty malice that lurks beneath which can turn into menacing rage when he feels the least undermined. Edward’s reverence for the systems he has upheld is genuinely terrifying. He has even kept his cane in his home as a kind of monument, to Maureen’s bafflement, why did he simply not destroy it? He could not bring himself to destroy the history of what it represented. Even his ultimate admittance that the use of the cane was for more petty misdemeanors like damage to property rather than bullying; outlining our systematic priority of property and institutions rather than the individuals who exist within them.
Jessica Clarke endows Anna a terrifyingly fanatical gaze and the sense she keeps herself going to spite her parents. She is someone who throws around phrases like ‘best practice’, ‘student voice’ and ‘prepared for the future’ with forcefulness that borders on the fetishistic need to control. Her vision is an educational system rooted in order and suppression of individualism. Maureen rightfully asks, how much bullying and infringement of students and teachers liberties have been enacted in pursuit of this new system? There are allusions towards Anna’s own violent tendencies as a child; she allegedly went after her father with an axe and damaged the wall; the tell-tale marks haven’t been papered over. I wish the text had explored her childhood a bit deeper, especially considering the culture her parents perpetuated. Ultimately it seems that these characters have truly little integrity when it comes to their principles and merely use them to score points over each other.
Kirsten von Bibra (assisted by Zachary Dixon) deftly navigate the cerebral nature of the text with uneasy fascination that often develops into dread. Ravenhill’s text explores many different ideas and themes using the characters as catalysts which can come at the expense of specific characterisation and motivation. Whilst the play is set-in modern-day Britain the accents and mannerisms are neutral to the point of the actors, Australian accents slipping through with more and more regularity. I felt more attention could have been played to the nuances of their class.
Lara Week has developed a barren and austere playing space for the actors made up of oppressive carpeted beige with a cunning staircase and simple vintage furniture; before the actors even enter, she evokes the complete lack of joy or love in this home. Likewise, her costumes are made up of moving tiny details that speak volumes; Maureen’s Alice headband and Anna’s severe double breasted trench coat being highlights. Bronwyn Pringles lighting design very actively enunciates changes in mood; I personally found it quite distracting but it very successful adds to the more eerie aspects of the play especially alongside Adam Casey’s tense and mournful sound design generates a thriller like ambience.
The Cane is an entertaining and slight living room drama that held me captive for its entire running time. It provides many themes and opportunities for discussion though in my opinion doesn’t go far as it could to be more substantially, revelatory. After our exile from communal performance it was a legitimate joy to be able to attend a well structured play in an intimate space and actually discuss it with a friend after. These aren’t the kind of experiences that are to be taken for granted again and I hope people have the opportunity to partake in this one before the season ends.
The cane is playing at Red Stitch until 9th of May.
Image: Jodie Hutchinson