The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios: in a different class

Ruling Class blog_header

I first saw James McAvoy on the stage nearly two years ago in March 2013. He was playing the lead role in Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios. It was Director Jamie Lloyd’s first season of his ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ seasons, with the second one on now. It was also the first time I had ever seen a play captioned by STAGETEXT to make it accessible to me, and it changed my life.

At the time, I had been progressively losing my hearing for over three years, which had left me very hard of hearing. I was struggling to hear anything and to be able to communicate with people, so it was a difficult time for me. When I saw my first captioned performance, it was a complete revelation to me. It opened up my eyes to the joys and wonders of seeing live accessible theatre. I could actually enjoy it on equal terms to everyone else in the audience.

James McAvoy was incredible in this raw, bloody production, giving a truly captivating performance as the powerful but flawed Macbeth. He ended up being destroyed by his own blood-thirsty ambition and tortured by his own guilt at the murders he’d committed in his relentless quest to be King. His gripping performance left a lasting impression on me.

Ruling Class blog_Macbeth

As soon as I found out that James McAvoy would be returning to star in Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios, I knew I had to buy tickets to see it. I rushed down to the Box Office the same day and bought tickets for my wife and myself, along with some of my deaf and hard of hearing friends, to see the captioned performance.

When I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios last Monday night, the place was packed. I think the combination of the popularity and fame of James McAvoy and the fact that tickets are priced at only £15 every Monday night to appeal to a more diverse, younger crowd of theatregoers than the usual West End crowd, added to the busyness of the theatre.

Ruling Class blog_Richard + ticket

Right from the start, I was hooked. The opening scene was shocking, showing the accidental death of the pompous 13th Earl of Gurney in a bizarre sexually-motivated hanging scene, with him dressed in a ballet tutu and three-corner cocked hat. James McAvoy, as his son Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, then inherits his title and all his estate, but the problem is that he is a paranoid schizophrenic, who thinks he is Jesus Christ and has just spent the previous seven years in a psychiatric hospital.

McAvoy is brilliant as the psychotic, deluded Jack living in his fantasy world believing he is God. He rushes around the stage dressed in a white suit with a carnation, telling his horrified family that the is “The God of Love”, and when they ask how he knows he is God, he replies “When I pray to Him, I find I’m talking to myself”. He comes across as a flower-power hippy sort of God living in a trippy, psychedelic dream where everyone loves each other, and he even sleeps on a cross, which was in the middle of the stage. He seemed to have a magnetic presence on the stage, mixing boyish charm with weird, psychotic undertones.

Ruling Class blog_JC

The plot then focuses on his family scheming to have him sectioned so that they can take control of the family estate, but not before having him married off to the local floozy, who his uncle has had an affair with, so that he can produce an heir first. The whole thing is really surreal but very funny, in a very dark sort of way. The dialogue is crazy but very cleverly crafted too, mixing very old-fashioned, aristocratic language with weird gobble-de-gook that spurts out of McAvoy’s mouth when he is ranting psychotically, like verbal diarrhoea. At times the cast also spontaneously burst into song, singing away like they are in the middle of a pantomime. It was hilarious.

Ruling Class blog_Clare+ Shelly

Eventually, the young Jack goes from thinking he’s Jesus Christ to thinking he’s Jack the Ripper, with tragic consequences. McAvoy transforms himself from God-like and serene to the sneering, nasty, aristocratic Earl of Gurney/Jack the Ripper, who then manages to convince his family that he has become “normal” and been cured. He then takes his place in the House of Lords in a very macabre scene towards the end where the other Lords and judges there are shown as decrepit skeletons, covered in cobwebs.

Ruling Class blog_Jack The Ripper

I hadn’t heard of this play before but I found out that Peter Barnes wrote it in the 1960s. It was the era of the Profumo affair when the aristocracy and privileged elite ruled the country, with the class system being firmly entrenched. Barnes was mocking the class system and political hierarchy of the time, where the aristocracy believed they had a God-given right to rule the rest of us. I think that this has a lot of relevance to today’s society. We still live in an age where the super-rich, aristocrats and political elite class rule our society, and social inequality is greater than ever.

Ruling Class blog_McAvoy as King

The theme of the aristocratic ruling classes looking down upon the working classes is a constant theme running throughout the play. When Jack commits his first murder of Lady Claire, everyone immediately assumes that the murder was committed by his alcoholic, working class butler Daniel Tucker. Also, in an earlier scene, Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles Gurney, thinks nothing of getting his mistress with a broad Cockney accent Grace Shelley to pretend to be the Lady of the Camelias from the opera La Traviata, to con Jack into marrying her. But the artistocratic class is mocked constantly through this play too.

Ruling Class blog_butler

I thought that all the actors played their roles brilliantly, but James McAvoy stole the show with his magnetic presence on the stage. Well done to Alex, the captioner from STAGETEXT too for captioning such bizarre, difficult dialogue. The only problem was that the caption unit was placed high above the stage so it was difficult for us to keep looking down at the stage and back up to read the captions from where we were sitting, as we were seated quite low down. Also, there was a Q&A session with some of the cast and Jamie Lloyd afterwards but I didn’t stay for this as there was no live speech-to-text reporting provided. It would be better if this could be provided next time, if they are thinking of having another Q&A session on a captioned night.

Overall though, this was a great production. I really enjoyed it, and from the reaction from my wife and friends afterwards, so did they. It was surprising, shocking, funny and deliciously dark. It’s well worth seeing, if you haven’t already!

Ruling Class blog_McAvoy + Lloyd

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4 thoughts on “The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios: in a different class

  1. vspirit000 February 12, 2015 / 7:39 pm

    Hi. Thank you for the enrapturing review. It’s very good of you to share your thoughts. I’m a big fan of McAvoy’s works but living far away from London, I’m afraid this play is inaccessible to me. I also love the way you write.

    I have come across various mentions of captioned performances and always wondered, since it was implied, why are only some of them captioned and the rest aren’t? And does this also apply to movie theaters?

  2. Richard Turner February 12, 2015 / 9:01 pm

    Hi there. Thanks very much for your kind feedback. To be honest, I wish every theatre performance was captioned too. The reality is that there are usually only one or two captioned performances of a particular play or show per season, and many plays still don’t have any captioning at all. Theatres and arts venues in the UK have a duty to provide accessible performances due to the Equality Act 2010, but how they interpret this Act and the access they provide varies enormously by the venue. Some provide good access and others provide the minimum criteria to meet the law. It’s also a question of money as it costs the theatre money to pay for an external captioner and for the technology to be available etc.

    In addition, some hearing people find captioning distracting to the performance and would not go to a performance that is captioned. You have to balance that with the demands of deaf and hard of hearing people, for instance, who need the captioning to make it accessible to them and they are also paying customers. Saying that, when captioning is provided by a company like STAGETEXT it is usually very good and very much appreciated by deaf and hard of hearing people, who would not be able to go to the theatre without it.

    The cinema is another issue entirely. In general, the access in terms of availability of subtitled screenings of films is not good, often only once or twice a week and only one film per cinema. Often they are shown at inconvenient, off-peak times during the day or early on a Sunday morning, even in London. When you go outside of London, it is much worse with many cinemas having no subtitled screenings at all. Many deaf and hard of hearing people complain about this but still nothing gets done. The cinema operators say that hearing people don’t like watching subtitled films and that there is little demand for them. But then it’s a chicken and egg situation, because if you only show films at off-peak times, of course there will be little demand for them. The situation needs to improve – even if they showed more than 1 or 2 films a week, but it’s a question of profits and the cinema operators choosing when to schedule the films.

    I hope all that helps to explain things a bit more. It’s a long saga!

    • vspirit000 February 13, 2015 / 8:53 am

      Hi Richard. I wrote a comment but it somehow didn’t pass moderation. Which is strange because I don’t think it contained anything offensive. It’s more or less like this one, in fact. Unless this one doesn’t pass either.

      Anyway, thanks for the enrapturing review. It’s nice to read well-written reviews like this when you do not have the chance to go yourself due to inaccessibility brought about by the inconvenience of a different geographical location. It’s especially nice when you are a big fan of an actor’s works.

      I’ve always wondered when I come across things written about plays and captioned performances are mentioned. Since it was implied in most of the things I’ve seen it mentioned, would you happen to know why only some performances are captioned while the rest aren’t when the play and the venue are the same? And what about movies? Are they show times for shows that are captioned as well?

    • vspirit000 February 13, 2015 / 9:26 am

      Thank you so much for your kind explanation. I’m extremely sorry for spamming your blog with silly mistakes.

      I suppose it will take lot more time before the situation improves. Not being hard of hearing, I can somewhat understand being distracted by captions when one is trying to concentrate on other facets of a show. I reckon that is the reason why certain foreign countries would rather dub over voices than subtitle movies that are in English.

      However, it’s far from impossible if the captions or subtitling aren’t overly obtrusive. If one allows themselves to be fully absorbed by the goings on shown on screen, it’s not all that hard to ignore the words at the bottom of it (or above the seats or stage for plays). All it takes is conditioning. I’m used to it because where I’m from, movies aren’t voiced over (thank goodness for that). But being a multi-ethnic country, subtitles are actually glaringly obvious because movies are subtitled in two different languages /and/ sometimes captioned with English. So there’s a lot going on down below where almost 1/10, sometimes more, of the screen is taken up by ever-changing lines. What’s worse is sometimes the subtitling is wrong, and if that doesn’t take you out of a movie, then nothing short of a fire in the cinema will.

      I hope things will change in the UK as well as in other countries. I say this because unless it’s a silent movie or play, it’s hard to enjoy one when the story isn’t entirely accessible. I imagine it’s kind of like when I’m trying to see something on TV and can’t quite hear what’s being said but can’t turn the volume up either for one reason or another.

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