By Tom Barry
With the current political turbulence in Britain as the classes divide like never before and privilege becomes the byword for a newly emerging aristocracy, it shows considerable foresight that York DramaSoc had chosen to produce this particular play, first published in 1968 but having gained an even greater significance now than it had even then. The Ruling Class centres around the (self-inflicted) trials and tribulations of the noble house of Gurney, who following the suicide of its (ludicrously cotton-headed) patriarch, must contend with the fantasies of his even madder son Jack, and secure the family’s future.
For a play set so firmly in the establishment, with all its rigid class structures and self-confidence in being the bedrock of civilisation, there is no clear category into which The Ruling Class can be put. It is neither entirely a polemical satire, tearing the English aristocracy to shreds whilst ridiculing all those who support it; nor quite an absurdist comedy with the unpredictable whimsy of its main character Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney. It makes enough sense to seem plausible, but is reluctant to explain itself fully, lending the play as a whole a tinge of madness. Every character is mad, in their delusions of grandeur, their backwards priorities, their mistaken belief that wealth and privilege is the key to contentment. In fact, in his lunacy, Jack may be the sanest of them all.
For a play set so firmly in the establishment, with all its rigid class structures and self-confidence in being the bedrock of civilisation, there is no clear category into which The Ruling Class can be put.
The composition of the production is bewildering, flitting from interior to exterior settings in a flash, and all the characters seem almost to be ignoring one another in their respective struggles to get what they want. They squabble and backstab like Borgias, and in this detail lies perhaps the play’s central message; that money, power and inbreeding (cultural or otherwise) only aggravate the essential insanity that everyone suffers from. Jack, played by Christian Loveless, conducts himself with calm assurance in the first half, proclaiming himself the God of Love and living at ease with all around him. And so he’s promptly subjected to mental torture to ‘cure’ him, and return him to the state of living his despicable family deem right and proper. Unfortunately for them, this process only serves to transform his harmless idiosyncracies into an appetite for murder. Despite this the play remains stubbornly light-hearted, with some truly excellent parcels of dialogue making the darkness at the play’s heart seem absurd. Ben Kawalec as Tucker the ancient butler with bolshevik sympathies was always a welcome sight, and impressively considering the short rehearsal span, no member of the dozen cast noticeably lost concentration. Harry Elletson was also an exceedingly comfortable presence, as a benign fop with aspirations to national government.
The Ruling Class is a play seemingly at odds with itself, flippant on matters of great importance and borderline obsessive on trivial pursuits. But with enough levity and grasp on reality to keep the audience from drowning.
The Ruling Class by Peter Barnes, directed by Samantha Finlay and Max Manning. Performing at the Drama Barn on Saturday the 15th and Sunday the 16th of October at 7:30pm. Tickets available online and on the door for £4/5.