For Red Stitch, last year was a write-off, as instead of excitedly barrelling towards their 20th anniversary, Melbournians sat in lock-down. This is why last night, at the Australian premiere of ‘The Cane’ by Mark Ravenhill at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre, it really felt like a celebration.
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 theatre that really means something, always relevant to the social environment at the time. ‘The Cane’ certainly fits into these two descriptions remarkably well.
From UK playwright Mark Ravenhill, who has been popular in the UK theatre scene since his first play in 1996, ‘Shopping and Fucking’, ‘The Cane’ centres around a family unit made up of a father, mother and daughter. Although they are estranged, career motivated daughter Anna (Jessica Clarke) suddenly has appeared at her parent’s house early on a Sunday morning, and they sit trapped inside the house with an angry mob outside.
The angry mob are there for the father, Edward (Dion Mills), 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), 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.
‘The Cane’ is interesting in the way it explores ‘woke culture’. From the laughter and almost cheering reception of the audience when Maureen says the mob are there “because they are snowflakes”, I believe writer Mark Ravenhill might be onto something. This powerful thought-provoking script 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 back then. Especially, when they don’t have a full understanding of what being forced to do things may have been like, particularly for the person who had to do it.
As a piece of work, while ‘The Cane’ does explore this topic brilliantly well, the whole public school vs academy school rivalry that develops within the play, is kind of lost on an Australian audience. You do get a feeling that Edward’s public school system is the ‘good way’ and that Anna’s academy school system is the ‘bad way’, which centres around corporate greed. But given that this isn’t a topic that has been newsworthy in Australia the way that it has been in the UK, ‘The Cane’ certainly doesn’t pack quite the same punch here that Ravenhill intends to achieve.
The sparsely decorated set plays a powerful part to the themes of ‘The Cane’. The stark whiteness lending a hand to the bland existence that Maureen feels her and Edward have lived. The fact that they own very little, further enhances the notion the Edward has dedicated his whole life to teaching and 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. If anything, it briefly interrupted the brilliant intensity that the production managed 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 equally showed the strengths and weaknesses of their characters exceptionally well. Even when standing in silence, their clear facial expressions and glares that they give other characters were incredibly emotive.
Dion Mills is also sensational as the divided Edward. 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. Mills seems to relish playing a character on trial and his convincing performance will stick in my mind for a long time.
‘The Cane’ is an important piece of theatre, making a great point about the times that we once lived in comparison to the social noise now. Admittedly, after witnessing ‘The Cane’, I felt inspired to hunt down and view more of Mark Ravenhill’s work. I loved the social commentary addressed in ‘The Cane’ that gives the audience the opportunity to walk away from the theatre not only thinking about the topics discussed, but also to ponder upon answers to the questions raised within themselves.
If you love intense, character driven theatre, you need to make 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, and is not one to be missed.
‘The Cane’ by Mark Ravenhill is playing at Red Stitch Actor’s Theatre from April 7 to May 9, 2021.
For more information and ticketing, visit: https://www.redstitch.net
Photography by Jodie Hutchinson.