Power and control shift constantly in the drama The Cane, which is set in England. On the verge of retirement after 45 years in the job, Edward (Dion Mills) is a deputy school head. It is Sunday and his wife, Maureen (Caroline Lee) – who also used to be a teacher – has been busily preparing for his slap bang send off, which is slated for the ensuing Friday. Edward is looking forward to the recognition and praise for a job well done.
Their daughter, Anna (Jessica Clarke), pays them a visit and receives a frosty reception, to say the least. Mum Maureen – she and Anna face off in the first quarter hour of the production – quickly makes it clear she is not welcome. What greets Anna is quite a commotion. Her parents’ front window is boarded up and there’s a vocal student build up outside. It soon becomes clear why.
In researching the deputy head’s background, the fact that he was the responsible for dishing out corporal punishment (he wielded the cane) to literally hundreds of students decades earlier is uncovered. Now dozens of contemporary pupils – averaging 100 a day – have been gathering outside Edward’s home, hurling stones, bricks and abuse.
Further, inspectors have produced a damning report on the school, indicating it is letting down its students. The writing appears to be on the wall that this large centre for learning will be recatagorised as an academy school, that is an autonomous, independent, state-funded institution. Academies were introduced in 2000 with the aim of identifying and taking over failing schools in order to improve academic and employment outcomes for their pupils. Edward is preparing his own report rebutting the inspectors’ findings. Mind you, it won’t have any effect on the outcome.
Edward and Maureen haven’t exactly had a smooth relationship with their daughter, who was an angry and volatile child. With an axe in hand, she chased her father, swinging it and taking that axe to a wall, smashed glass and was prone to fits of pique. The residual resentment felt by her parents remains.
For all intents and purposes, the pair is estranged from their daughter, who is now a part of the academy system, which preaches what is termed an “eyes forward” approach to its students. Anna has two children who she is raising on her own because her former partner exited the scene, but her parents show no signs of wanting to know their grandkids.
The environment is tense and unforgiving – Edward and Maureen have been holed up, without daring to step outside their front door, for six days – as they await the arrival of the head of school in preparation for Friday’s send off. The number of students gathered at their home has reached a record couple of hundred. Accusations fly from all three players as shocking revelations abound. Is Edward a bully? Did he and Maureen ever really want or love their daughter? Does Anna have an ulterior motive for visiting them today?
At the centre of all the intrigue is a cane and a black ledger listing all those that received punishment, but there is a lot more to this story. Who would have thought anyone could craft such an emotion charged and compelling piece from a pretty straightforward contention? Playwright Mark Ravenhill has certainly done that and the tension is taut throughout. At its core, The Cane is about how things used to be done compared to how they are done now. What may have been considered reasonable in the past is totally unacceptable today.
The Cane is very much a story of our times. Just look around and see what behaviour and which attitudes are rightly being called out daily. The Cane is also about the dynamics of a dysfunctional family, characterised by three strong and accomplished performances. Each find their moments to shine, alternately domineering, compliant and submissive.
The simple set design by Lara Week, showing a rundown old house in desperate need of some TLC, works well. The piece unfolds in two scenes over 100 minutes, with the actors literally moving the furniture around in short time about midway through. The Cane grips from its opening and then bites down hard. Directed by Kirsten von Bibra, it is playing at Red Stitch Theatre until 9th May.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Oil (Red Stitch Theatre) – theatre review
- Burn This (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review
- The Feather in the Web (Red Stitch) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.