Revival of ‘The Ruling Class’ – bitingly funny

Ticket-Ruling-ClassLast week my daughter, half Scottish, and I went to see James McAvoy’s latest West End theatre performance in ‘The Ruling Class’. I read in the programme that Mr McAvoy had appeared in ‘Breathing Corpses’ at the Royal Court in March 2005, but my daughter was still in primary school and so we missed seeing this ‘exciting young talent’ (that’s a quote from the time by the theatre critic of The Independent). However, since then we have been lucky enough to see him star in ‘Three Days of Rain’ (2009) and then terrify us as ‘MacBeth’ (2013). And now, we have enjoyed watching him lead a strong cast through the revival of the 1968 satirical play ‘The Ruling Class’ by Peter Barnes.

Superb ensemble headed by James McAvoy taking their bows at the end of 'The Ruling Class'.  Directed by Jamie Lloyd.
Superb ensemble headed by James McAvoy taking their bows at the end of ‘The Ruling Class’.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd.

The play has not been given a 21st-century updating, but deliberately offers us the looks and, more importantly, the voices of the 1960s, all strangled received pronunciation (aka the Queen’s English or BBC English). Although I’m not old enough to remember the class politics of the late 1960s, I did recognise and understand the overall context and its resonance for a 2015 audience. As a piece essentially poking fun at the British class system I wondered what many of the younger, overseas visitors made of the play. I was sat between my daughter (21) and a lady who I think had seen the original 1968 production. I think the older lady and I enjoyed the whole experience considerably more than my daughter.

Electrifying - Forbes Masson and James McAvoy. 'The Ruling Class' publicity photograph by Johan Persson.
Electrifying – Forbes Masson and James McAvoy.
‘The Ruling Class’ publicity photograph by Johan Persson.

James McAvoy’s performance as Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, grabs the audience round the neck and shakes it this way and that as he energetically channels his immense charisma into this larger than life character. The play is funny, the humour dark and vicious, and McAvoy appears to relish playing such an unstable, fluid character. It is no wonder he has been nominated for a Best Actor Olivier Award.Ā Almost equalling McAvoy’s mesmerising performance is another Scot, Forbes Masson, who was both versatile and brilliant in the various parts he played. Indeed, the whole talented cast made for a highly entertaining evening particularly if you enjoy a dose of black humour. The play is on until April 11, 2015 at Trafalgar Studios.

And, finally, if you would like a straight from the horse’s mouth comment on the current controversy about elitism in theatre – have a look at this two minute video filmed at the opening night.

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James McAvoy – Three Days of Rain, Macbeth and Filth

McAvoy-Filth-Sept13For me visual culture absolutely includes film, I love the big screen and will go whenever I think a film might be aimed at just a bit more than the teenage-boy demographic. I love intense or spectacular and preferably both and that’s probably why ‘Melancholia’ directed by Lars von Trier is one of my favourite films. Now, I’ve just been to see ‘Filth’ directed by Jon S Baird from the novel by Irvine Welsh and starring James McAvoy. It is challenging, adult viewing, funny in parts in a grotesque, outrageous way with the black humour lessening the pain of watching the meltdown of a very flawed human being.

My daughter (half Scottish) is a huge McAvoy fan and we’ve seen most of his films and some of his stage work. For my sins I’ve hung around the Apollo Theatre Stage Door with her waiting for her to meet ‘the Star’ and get his autograph after seeing him in ‘Three Days of Rain'(2009). He was very pleasant to the fans and signed all the programmes that were excitedly shoved in his face.

So, Mr McAvoy a ‘nice kinda guy’ actor becomes, in ‘Filth’, Bruce Robertson – a totally repugnant and disgusting character, brutal, slimy, misogynistic, homophobic and most of all treacherous. And, he does look terrible, as McAvoy himself said his face looks “like a bag of smashed crabs”. No doubt some of his fans won’t like this, but commenting in a BBC Scotland interview yesterday, he also said, “audiences just can’t have it easy all the time”. The character of Bruce Robertson is central to the film and McAvoy gives an amazing energetic yet intense performance portraying an alcoholic, cocaine snorting and pitifully disturbed individual. There is also great support from a rich cast including Joy McAvoy, James’ sister.

What intrigues me about the sentiment of modern film/theatre goers is that there are people outraged by contemporary portrayals of disintegrating, deranged individuals in a gritty film such as ‘Filth’, but who will watch a not dissimilar moral breakdown in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and find it acceptable. Earlier this year on 4 April, my daughter and I saw McAvoy play Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios in London. It was another dynamic performance with plenty of ‘blood’ splattered around so much so that as we took our seats, close to the action, a member of the production team came to explain that any red splashes on our clothes would wash off!! But, it wasn’t the visual effects that were shocking it was the menacing, terrifying and manic central performance by McAvoy. In this production there was a scene where Macbeth stalks round a room knowing that hiding in a wooden cupboard is the child son of Macduff. He circles the wooden casket and you realise that he is going to murder the boy, and then suddenly it happens he repeatedly thrusts his knife into the cupboard with intense, dark glee, killing the boy. It was stunningly shocking.

Macbeth 2012 Trafalgar Studios

As humans we make culture in order to express aspects and qualities of our humanity and it isn’t all going to be pretty, pretty and smelling of roses. Shakespeare certainly liked to delve into the darker side of the human psyche and explore our foibles. This film is a hard-nosed, 21st-century look at our imperfect nature in our imperfect world. A film like ‘Filth’ with characters like Bruce Robertson give us a magnified, supercharged reflection of a real world. It’s controversial, harsh and at times a difficult film to watch, but if you’re outraged then engage, respond and talk about it.

And, finally a little plug – James McAvoy supports the charity Retrak helping the street children of Africa – take a look, Retrak