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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!