The Cane

Review - Mark Ravenhill's The Cane at the Royal Court

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

We live in an age of mob justice: trial by Twitter and punishment by the press and in the court of popular opinion. Things were simpler once: you "just" got a slap across the hand with a cane. But corporal punishment has long been outlawed. The scars of it, however, linger - and tonight, as Edward is looking forward to his imminent retirement after 45 years as a teacher and deputy head at a now failing comprehensive, the mobs are gathering outside his house to protest at his former exercise of that punishment. 

In Mark Ravenhill's tense, taut three-hander, the only other characters we actually meet are his beleaguered, long-suffering wife and his estranged adult daughter, also a teacher, who has a progressive agenda of her own. The play is partly written on an intense domestic canvas, as old family dynamics are laid bare.  

But there are much wider resonances, too - what the published text dubs on its back cover, "the major failure of the echo-chamber of liberalism." Or, as a recent Guardian feature on the play interviewing Ravenhill and his director Vicky Featherstone put it, "a play about confronting a dodgy past, struggling to move on from a shamed and discredited patriarchy, feels uncannily current." 

Featherstone was named the most influential person in British theatre in last year's Stage 100 list for the leadership she showed on confronting that past, not least at the Royal Court itself, in the light of #MeToo. Now this play confronts a different abusive legacy, and its uneasily prescient.  

It's also acted with gripping power and precision, with Alun Armstrong as the retiring teacher, Maggie Steed as his wife and Nicola Walker as his daughter. They maintain the shifting tensions between them - and the murderous noise of the mob outside - with a chilling intensity.   

The Cane is at the Royal Court until 26th January 2019. 

The Cane tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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