Red Stitch is back! Theatre is back! Yes there were still some Covid restrictions in place but last night as I joined 50 or so other people in the familiar territory of the Red Stitch Actors Theatre I finally felt like the Melbourne theatre scene was returning to normal in this what I think I am supposed to call a post-Covid normality.
For Red Stich last year was a write-off, instead of excitedly barrelling towards their 20th anniversary next year their theatres sat idle as Melbournians sat in lock-down. That is why last night, at the Australian premiere of The Cane by Mark Ravenhill, felt like a little celebration because Red Stitch was back and with The Cane they are back with avengence.
One of the things I have loved about Red Stitch over its 19 year history is the fact that it has always been a theatre company that performs pieces of theatre that really ‘mean something’ and that sometimes buck the general ‘thought’ of the world at that time. The Cane certainly fits into those two descriptions remarkably well.
From UK playwright Mark Ravenhill, who has been very popular in the UK theatre scene since his first play Shopping And Fucking was first performed in 1996, The Cane centres around a family unit made up father, mother and daughter. They are estranged but suddenly career motivated daughter Anna (Jessica Clarke – The Menkoff Method) has appeared at her parent’s house early on a Sunday morning as they sit trapped inside their house with an angry mob outside.
The angry mob are there for the father, Edward (Dion Mills – Wentworth), who aside from preparing for retirement from his job as a Public School teacher for 45 years has been dealing with the fallout surrounding the fact that he was the teacher responsible for caning students over 30 years ago. Caught in the crossfire is the mother, Maureen (Caroline Lee – The Dressmaker), who has dutifully been the housewife over all of these years and has never forgiven her daughter for an incident years earlier when she tried to attack her father with an axe.
I think what I found most interesting about the plot for The Cane is the way that it explores ‘woke culture’ and from the laughter and almost cheering from the audience when Maureen says the mob are there “because they are snowflakes” then writer Mark Ravenhill might be onto something. The powerful thought-provoking script here explores the notion that yes things may have happened 30 years ago that would be socially reprehensible now but perhaps the modern day generation have no right to criticise something that was the social norm then especially when they don’t have a full understanding of what being forced to do things like that may have had on the person who had to do it.
As a piece of work The Cane explores that notion brilliantly well and that more than makes up for the fact that the whole Public School vs Academy School rivalry that develops during the play is kind of lost on an Australian audience. You do get a feeling as you watch the play that Edward’s public school system is the ‘good way’ and that Anna’s Academy school system is the ‘bad way’ that centres around corporate greed, but given that this isn’t a topic that has been newsworthy here the way it has been in the UK it certainly doesn’t pack the punch here that it would there.
The sparsely decorated set plays a powerful part to the themes of The Cane. The stark whiteness of the set lends a hand to the bland existence that Maureen feels that her and Edward have lived while the fact that they own very little further enhances the notion the Edward has dedicated his whole life to teaching and that the things that are important to him are hidden away in the attic. My only criticism of the entire production is that the cast ‘changing rooms’ mid-performance seemed a bit redundant as the change of environment did nothing to enhance the story playing out in front of us and if anything it briefly interrupted the brilliant intensity that the production manage to hold up throughout the night.
Ravenhill’s script also allows for some amazing performances from the cast. Jessica Clarke and Caroline Lee shine and easily won over the audience despite the fact that their characters are both cold and stand-offish. Both actresses managed to pull off performances that equally showed the strengths and weaknesses of their characters sensationally well and the keen eyed audience member will also notice their clear facial expressions and glares that they give other characters as they stand in silence at times.
Dion Mills was also sensational as the divided Dion Mills. He is faced with the fact that at times during the performance that audience are going to see him as a ‘monster’ and it is up to him with his performance to try to convince the audience otherwise. As an actor Mills seems to relish playing a character on trial and his performance will stick in my mind for a long time.
For me this felt like an important piece of theatre making a great point about the times that we live in. Mark Ravenhill is now a playwright that I really want to hunt down the work of and explore more of. I love the ‘social commentary’ displayed in The Cane and I love the fact that themes like the family’s relationship are never really resolved in the play… that gives the audience the opportunity to walk away from the theatre not only thinking about the topics discussed but also to answer those questions those themselves. Having seen that Ravenhill has recently worked with Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers and I think am about to head down a rabbit-hole that I am going to enjoy immensely.
If you love intense, character driven theatre then you need to take a trip to Red Stitch to see The Cane. This powerful new work is a great way to celebrate the return of live theatre to Melbourne, so don’t miss it!
The Cane by Mark Ravenhill is on at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre from 7th April – 9th May 2021.