“How do you know you are God?”
‘Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.’”
When a revival of a play is prefaced by “rarely-seen”, it’s hard not to assume that there’s often good reason for that and so it felt with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class. As a piece of drama, it feels dated and heavy handed, its formerly satirical edges altogether too manic and blunted. But as a piece of theatre, it has a peach of a leading role for which Jamie Lloyd has renewed his Trafalgar Transformed relationship with James McAvoy, who delivers it with an often breathtaking stage presence.
His 14th Earl of Gurney is a paranoid schizophrenic aristo called Jack who thinks he is Jesus and inherits the family pile after his father’s suicide, much to the consternation of his relatives. But even as they plot with a psychiatrist to get him shut away, Jack finds his way to (relative) sanity and locates a new target for his considerable energies – the House of Lords. That it is the aristocracy bearing the brunt of much of Barnes’ bite makes it clearer to see why the play has languished rather, its class-based pointedness showing its age.
McAvoy’s extraordinary energy and half-naked unicycling skills show an impressive versatility and he is matched by a well-chosen supporting cast – Joshua McGuire is perfect in this kind of farcical goings-on as a dim relative, Elliot Levey’s psychiatrist is strong and Anthony O’Donnell’s good-fortuned butler is particularly funny. But there’s a whole lot of wackiness going on in this play, and this production, that made it a rather wearing thing to watch and indicated quite clearly, to me at least, that that “rarely revived” sobriquet was well earned.