The Ruling Class – ‘a new beast, though one they are competently battling’

Stage Wrong Productions tackle the challenging black comedy on at the BT in third week.

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A man huddles on the grass with a woman looking over him
Photographer: Eddie Holmes-Milner

My preview of The Ruling Class, a week before the first performance, demands quite a bit of imagination. The rehearsals take place in a rather cramped room hidden away in the recesses of St John’s College, and the worn furniture has been commandeered as a substitute for several props.

“Imagine those two chairs are a chaise longue,” the co-directors, Lev Crofts and Eddie Holmes-Milner, tell me, “and that those armchairs stacked on top of each other are a giant cross”. Later on, as we are watching a scene from the second act unfold, Crofts surreptitiously informs me that I am to understand a giant blanket that one of the actors is holding is a set of coronation robes.

Hold on: a chaise longue, a giant cross and coronation robes? Let me explain – but brace yourselves, because it’s gloriously ridiculous. The plot of The Ruling Class, a 1968 black comedy by British playwright Peter Barnes, revolves around the 14th Earl of Gurney, more commonly known as Jack. A paranoid schizophrenic, he has developed a delusion that he is in fact Jesus Christ. Now that the 13th Earl of Gurney is dead (accidental ‘autoerotic asphyxiation’, Crofts informs me – no, I don’t know either), and he has left the majority of contents of his will to his mentally ill son, classically farcical drama ensues.

Undeniably, this is a comedy driven by its characters, each memorable for their individual antics: among a few other characters, we meet Jack’s money-hungry, scheming uncle Sir Charles (played by Basil Bowdler), a bishop (played by Jack Parkin), a butler (Tucker, played by Lucy Mae Humphries) and a rather clinical, detached psychiatrist (Dr Herder, played Luke Buckley Harris). To be sure, Crofts and Holmes-Milner have chosen large shoes to fill in attempting to tackle the comedy. Tom Bannon, in playing Jack, is taking on a role first made famous by the iconic Peter O’Toole, who championed the character both on stage and later on the screen. Bannon also follows a 2015 West End revival for the play that featured an electric portrayal of Jack from James McAvoy, who earned Best Actor at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for the performance.

In the first scene I preview, which is a scene from the first act and, I am told, comes directly after Jack’s dramatic entrance (fresh out of a mental institution), Dr Herder is in tense conversation with an irate Sir Charles about Jack’s delusion (“Why haven’t you used the knife?” Sir Charles demands, to which Dr Herder replies calmly, “Lobotomy is unnecessary in this case”).

The dark subject of mental illness is neutralised by the relentless comedy throughout – and yes, it even delivers some classic public school jibes: “He can’t forget being rejected by his mother and father at the age of eleven,’” Dr Herder claims. “They sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts.” “You mean he went to a public school?” Charles replies.

When watching this preview, it’s not at all difficult to look past the makeshift set as I am instructed. Though deprived of a proper stage, Bowdler and Buckley Harris confidently command the small space they are accorded.

I must single out Bowdler in particular for the snippet of his performance as Sir Charles which I watched: bullish, angry and overbearing, he is convincing as an entitled English aristocrat, sidling up menacingly to the doctor and demanding answers.

In the next scene I preview, this time from the second act, Tom Bannon comes into his own as Jack, speaking swiftly, almost incoherently, as he further reinforces his delusion. Though Crofts informs me that I am to imagine Bannon as being singled out by a spotlight, and Sir Charles’ wife, Claire (played by Eleanor Cousins Brown), shrouded in darkness sitting on the chaise longue off to the side, the scene did not need it, as Bannon is arresting in his performance, the crescendo of his babbling speech culminating in a single loud proclamation (‘I am the Lord Jesus come again in my body!’) just before the lights come up.

This is Crofts’s and Holmes-Milner’s first production as codirectors. Both met on the set of Pirandello’s Henry IV last term, where Crofts was the Assistant Director and Holmes-Milner one of the cast members. The Ruling Class is clearly a new beast for them, though one they are both competently battling.

With the first performance looming on the horizon, and having only started rehearsing at the end of 0th week, it is clear that they are feeling the pressure (I am told, rather sheepishly, that a tutorial essay due three days ago may have been forsaken). Yet I am equally struck by how dedicated and passionate they both are about this show – after the preview, though both are still in the throes of an intense rehearsal schedule, they are both eager to talk with me more about the play itself and their experience adapting and directing it.

When I ask them what they want the audience to take away from their production of The Ruling Class, Crofts’s immediate response is simple: that “it’s fucking hilarious”. This is true – as I watched the preview, other cast and crew members could not help but laugh along with me, even though they must have watched the same scenes so many times before.

A question which struck me as I watched the preview was whether this was a play which could transcend its own time – with its rather crude treatment of mental illness (especially in light of our current mental health epidemic) and its mockery of a class system which is not quite as apparent today, is Barnes’s play outof-date, tasteless, or even offensive?

With respect to its depiction of the upper-class, Crofts rightfully points out that class is still as pervasive an issue as it was in the 20th century, citing his experience in Oxford so far as evidence of this. Coming from a state school, he tells me, institutions such as CalSoc (Oxford Caledonian Society) or pastimes such as ‘beagling’ are a million miles away from his upbringing and indicative of a long-standing class system. In his words, “you have to be involved in that sort of thing for a long time”.

With respect to its depiction of mental illness, Holmes-Milner makes a compelling argument to the contrary, describing it as a play that is essentially to do with institutionalised abandonment. He uses the second act in particular as evidence of this, as it represents a tonal shift from the first, a movement away from the absurdity to something much deeper.

It is at this point in my article where I must tread carefully, for fear of revealing too much. I think, echoing Crofts’s phrase that it is a ‘play of extremes’, is as far I can safely go – where you start when watching this production is very far from where you actually end up in the final scene. Barnes’s treatment of themes such as mental illness and class is much more nuanced than it first seems. It is precisely this which makes The Ruling Class so much more than a farcical comedy, and I recommend you head down to the BT Studio next week to see it.

The Ruling Class is at the BT Studio from Tuesday 14th until Saturday 18th May (3rd week). Tickets can be found here.


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