A teacher gets ‘cancelled’ by his students for historic acts of violence
By Lois Maskiell
“This will seem like something from the past, cruel like sending children up chimneys,” the father says in Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane. It’s a phrase that resounds throughout the play, which was first performed at London’s The Royal Court two years ago, before having its Australian premiere at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre.
The drama starts when Edward (Dion Mills), who is the husband of Maureen (Caroline Lee) and father of Anna (Jessica Clarke), prepares for his retirement after teaching at the same school for 45 years. However, plans for his farewell celebration are thrown into disarray when a mob of students, brought to life by Adam Casey’s sound design, descend on his house. Jeering from outside, the students hurl a brick through the window.
Tension climbs in this lean two act play when the couple’s estranged daughter Anna unexpectedly arrives. Demanding to know why the students are outside, she learns that they’re protesting against her father’s use of the cane some thirty years ago, when corporal punishment was still legal.
Whether the past can be measured against today’s moral standards is the question the play probes. It’s a dilemma that persists, along with themes of patriarchal authority, violence and gendered power dynamics.
Kirsten von Bibra’s sophisticated direction unlocks a contrast between the naturalistic family drama and the text’s stylised dialogue; the result elevates the experience well beyond the mundane.
The set and costume design by Lara Week charms with its colours and simplicity. The compact stage features a staircase that rotates across the floor in an innovative transition accentuated by Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting design.
Screen and stage actor, Caroline Lee, performs Maureen with vocal prowess. She captures her sense of duty as a wife, despite her husband’s bouts of rage. Dion Mills hits a nerve in his performance of Edward. Mills’ delivery ranges from piercing to funny, as he explores the emotions of a man making a messy transition to retirement.
Jessica Clarke delivers a strong performance of the daughter Anna. Assertive and demanding, she challenges much of what her parents consider customary, including the school system her father devoted his working life to.
In its first in-door event since the latest coronavirus restrictions eased in Melbourne, Red Stitch delivers a clever production that draws on the timely issue of cancel culture. Whether it’s violence in schools or racial stereotypes in books and films, not everything accepted in the past ages well. What’s less certain, however, is how far the public should go to denounce what it believes was wrong.
The Cane runs from April 7 to May 9 at The Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in St Kilda. Tickets are available here: https://www.redstitch.net/the-cane-2021
Photography by Jodie Hutchinson