One of the shittier aspects of the world we live in is that our rulers want us to like them. It is no longer enough that this is their world (while we just live in it). Now they want to be liked, even loved. Films such as The King’s Speech and TV shows like Made in Chelsea and Downtown Abcess are all part of a Smarm Offensive by the 1 percent. When the global ruling class gathered for their annual Rich Boys Beano at Davos they hired in children’s entertainer Emma Watson and in-the-news-again Prince Andrew solely to generate the Toff Love vibes.
That is why the revival of Peter Barnes’s play The Ruling Class is so electrifying and timely. Barnes called his play “an anti-boss drama for the shorn not the shearers”, later adding, “I try to use comedy in a revolutionary spirit to upset and to dynamite received opinions.” Jamie Lloyd’s production and James McAvoy’s incendiary performance finally do justice to Barnes’s play. This really is dynamite.
Like dynamite The Ruling Class is made up of different elements — part farce (Barnes translated Feydeau), part knock-about musical (Barnes knew his Joan Littlewood) and part witty comedy (but think Ben Johnson, not Noel Coward). Combined they produce a play that simply explodes with an uncompromising contempt for the ruling classes and all their works.
The story is simple. When the 13th Earl of Gurney hangs himself in a sex-game gone wrong, he is succeeded by his son, Jack. There are, however, two problems with Jack. Firstly, he is possibly “mad” and thinks he is God. But having a messiah-complex has never been that much of a handicap for the “titled turds” has it? (Yes, I mean you Prince Charles.) The Bigger Problem for the Gurneys is that Jack is a gentle soul who believes in peace, love and understanding, and that will simply not do in the ruling elite. So the Gurney family set out to engineer a personality change to make the new 14th Earl fit to rule.
When the play ends Jack has been frankensteined into a vicious, preening psychopath making inane Farage-style speeches to the decaying relics of the House of Lords. A typical and proper member of the ruling class at last.
Every single member of the ruling class on stage is loathsome — dim, venal, slimy and cruel (plus they are called by annoying names like Binky and Proudfoot). The only sympathetic character is Tucker, the long-suffering butler who turns out to be a secret “anarcho-Trotskyist” given to spitting in their soup and pissing on their best Wedgwood china. It is hard to see that happening in the everybody-knows-their-place world of the Downton fantasy, isn’t it? But then despite the theatricality, at the core The Ruling Class is a totally realist play.
It was written in the very different political world of 1968 when there was a Labour government with a big majority, the working class was shifting into belligerent mood and inequality was edging (unhurriedly) our way. Today we live in a country run by the Chipping Norton Set, where a London mansion can sell for £300 million and where even the Labour Party has pawned its soul to the uber-rich. Give or take the odd detail, this play is arguably more relevant today.
Of course, there is a downside. There is an inherent dichotomy between the fire-eating politics of the play and the small, middle class audience that traditionally go to serious theatre. The theatre is doing its best to address this by offering cheap (£15) tickets through its commendable Trafalgar Transformed scheme, and if you get the chance of a ticket grab it by any means necessary (in a peaceful, loving and understanding way, of course).
But the dismal fact remains that this play only runs for a couple of months, that the theatre holds only 600 or so, and that normal ticket prices are an eye-watering £60 plus. A late night rerun of Muppets in Chelsea will attract a bigger audience than will see this production during its entire run.
Yes, it is wonderful that this superlative play is on a public stage again. Yes, it is inspiring that McAvoy and company play it with such passion. And yes, it is the sweetest irony that this anti-boss jeremiad runs at a theatre 800 yards from Ruling Class Mission Control in Downing Street. But the fact is that even a sensational production of a brilliant play politically amounts to barely a pinprick against the ruling class it so despises. However, as ineffectual evenings go, this is up there with the very best. And personally, I can’t think of a better night out than sticking pins in pricks like Cameron, Prince Charles and the Bullingdon Filth. Can you?
The Ruling Class is on at the Trafalgar Studios, London, until 11 April