The mad heart of the English aristocracy is dissected in this peculiar 1968 satire, written by Peter Barnes who was a sworn enemy of naturalism. The play’s archetypal characters, silly coincidences and abundant chorus songs are testament to the fact.
In the post-show discussion, James McAvoy said: “Some nights I’m in it and I just don’t know what the hell it is.” I think that’s about right. As the cast also noted, it is a play that makes much more sense with an audience present. Their reactions – particularly to the comedy – are crucial to the piece.
And it’s largely McAvoy’s part in it all that carries the absurdity with any kind of finesse. As the ruling character – in both script and fame – Jack (McAvoy), the 14th Earl of Gurney, has newly inherited the family estate. The family are plotting to depose him, tripping over each other’s plans in comic collisions. His tutu-wearning Dad kicked the bucket by quite literally, by kicking the stepladder in a S&M hanging game.
Entering in monk’s garb, he calls upon the bereaved family to pray… to him. Quickly revealed as ‘mad’ and possibly schizophrenic, Jack is rather JC, Lord, God – in fact he answers to any derivative of any god ever named. He is deemed officially sane; let off for aristocratic idiosyncrasies, by partaking in a rousing performance of the Eton Boating Song with the fellow Old Etonian doctor.
There are spectacular moments. James McAvoy astride a unicycle in his briefs, with God is Love emblazoned on his chest, was certainly one of them. He hangs out on a crucifix as though it were a climbing frame. An enigmatic chorus rendition of “Dem Bones” was especially entertaining. And the drunken butler, Anthony O’Donnell, delivers a hilarious Marxist rant.
But much of the satire is lost without the 60s context. And most of the slapstick just isn’t that funny. The cobwebby members of the House of Lords, for instance, feel particularly irrelevant. As one of them prattles on in advance of the death sentence, a skeletal arm detaches from his body. The attack on the ruling class itself is similarly dated. Sure, there remains a ruling elite in different robes, but today they are not merely ‘mad’ and benign, shut up in country mansions.
More worryingly, the portrayal (or appropriation) of mental health in the piece is insensitive. Of course freedom of expression and comedy is desperately necessary. But I am concerned that everything we hear about mental illness is so deriding and stereotyped.
I attended The Ruling Class with theatre charity Mousetrap, who (among other things) arrange trips to the West End for 19-23 year olds for £10.