The Ruling Class
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James McAvoy returns to Trafalgar Studios to star in the first revival of Peter Barnes's comedy, directed by Jamie Lloyd.
Hotshot director Jamie Lloyd has built up a lot of goodwill with his populist, sleb-heavy seasons at Trafalgar Studios. And he cashes that goodwill in with a shot out of leftfield: half-forgotten playwright Peter Barnes’s ‘The Ruling Class’, a play that’s presumably never been revived because it is, frankly, fucking nuts.
A cracked, filthy social satire that comes across like Joe Orton throwing himself howling into the abyss, it’s a much bigger ask of audiences than anything else Lloyd has staged here. But the director has quite a contacts book, and his old mucker James McAvoy – whose ‘Macbeth’ opened Lloyd’s first Trafalgar season in 2013 – is on hand to guarantee brisk business.
McAvoy is here for more than that, though: he flings himself into the role of insane aristocrat Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney, with a demon’s vigour. Jack starts off believing he’s Jesus and ends up convinced he’s Jack the Ripper. In between he crucifies himself, gets into a fight with another bloke who also believes he’s Jesus, unicycles topless (this actually happens) and attempts to commit a spate of murders. It’s not the sort of performance that wins awards: it’s about as heart-warming as an ice sculpture of a puppy being stamped on. But it might just get him the gig as the next Timelord: with a compelling/repellent mixture of aristocrat arrogance, childish enthusiasm and plummy camp, he’s just fascinatingly, brilliantly weird.
But that weirdness shifts, and that’s the key to the play. Hauled in from the nuthouse after his esteemed father dies in an autoerotic accident, Jack is loathed by the other, nominally sane, monstrously entitled Gurneys, who scheme against him as he potters around like a smarmy messiah. But as his whimsy evaporates and the Ripper takes over, he suddenly starts fitting in with his peers rather better: he has become the right sort of mad.
Barnes’s point – and it barely needs to be said that it’s quite a relevant one these days – is that the belief of the privileged upper class and the super-rich that they deserve to run the country is no saner than a guy believing that he’s Jesus. It’s a point he makes well.
Aspects of the play have dated, or at least date it: the quickfire surrealism, frequent song interludes, blokes dressed as old dears and monstrously OTT toffs are all very Pythonesque, while a modern playwright surely wouldn’t be quite so flip about mental illness. But in fact much of the power of Lloyd’s high-energy, low-flash production is his – and our – recognition of the fact that such an unreconstructed piece of ’60s satire remains so starkly relevant. ‘I know 1 percent of the population owns half the property in England,’ spits a character at one point. This is a play half out of its time, but Lloyd, McAvoy and an exemplary ensemble haul it as far as they possibly can into 2015, with mostly thrilling results.