Donmar Warehouse. Directed by Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar
From what I can tell from his biography in the program, this is Ravenhill’s seventh play. I vaguely remember seeing the first, a Shaftesbury Avenue transfer from the Royal Court — Shopping and Fucking — and thinking it was a disorganized shambles of a play but with a strong idea, though clumsily handled. The same is true of The Cut, whose third scene, too brief to be more than a coda but functioning structurally as a climax, makes a shaky end of a play full of finely honed dialogue and real sympathetic feeling. In the hands of Ian McKellen, the central role of Paul, the conscience-stricken surgeon who has performed “the cut” — the mysterious surgical operation that renders troubled people calm and happy — comes vibrantly, shatteringly alive. But it’s not clear, finally, to what purpose we have watched the surgeon’s attempted suicide, his painful breakdown before a wife who cannot sympathize or even inquire into his excruciating dilemma, and his hapless self-excoriation before a son, Stephen, who is such an inexperienced, callow idealist that he, too, cannot understand.
This is an example of a “parallel universe” play too close to our own world for comfort. It seems generally contemporary, but if this is London or South Africa or somewhere else in an English-speaking world, it is a world that has been galvanized into revolt against a surgical procedure that produces blessed relief from stress in those who undergo it. Far from being practiced solely on troublemakers or the criminally insane, it is done on people who have heard of it, studied up on it, and finally come to crave it with every bone in their body. In the powerful first scene, Jimmy Akingbola’s character John insists on having it; when Paul, McKellen’s character, tries to dissuade him, John insists, so forcibly that Paul has no choice but to capitulate. In the second scene, a dead-tired and deeply troubled Paul arrives home to his wife, who runs the household with the assistance of an inept cook and who otherwise has seemingly no purposeful life; she thinks of forming a group to talk about the social implications of the widening practice of the “cut,” and she confesses to Paul that she has speculated, in her afternoon rests in her dark bedroom, that he is a surgeon performing the “cut.” Paul breaks down into uncontrollable sobbing in the course of the scene, but his wife, Susan — crisply played by Deborah Findlay (whom I saw in Grandage’s earlier production of Coward’s The Vortex) — almost tears at him trying to make him get up off the floor, he disgusts her so much. At this point we think we are seeing the disintegration of a man originally of principle whose very professional skills have drawn him into a protracted course of action that he has come to loathe and that has produced in him a correlative feeling of self-loathing.
But then the third scene, only ten or twelve minutes in length, seems to take us off on a new tack. We are in a bare, starkly lit room in an institution, evidently a sort of detention center, where Paul has been incarcerated and now is being visited by his rigid, idealistic son, who proceeds to tell his father that he is evil: “You are my father, and you are evil.” “Don’t take this personally,” the young Stephen ludicrously adds. Paul responds with a blessing on his son — evidently, for articulating what Paul himself feels about himself. Paul would like, he says, to be taken out, paraded in the streets, and put to death; Stephen explains with impatient condescension that punishment is not conferred, under this new idealistic regime; but we sense that Paul’s incarceration here has no term. The son bids him what sounds like a final good-bye.
This ending simply doesn’t feel right, and that’s because Ravenhill has shifted thematic horses in mid-stream, or rather as he nears the farther bank. Ravenhill finally can’t decide what he is more interested in: a closely rendered study of the effect on a man who thinks of himself as “a good man” (Paul’s final line, in the last long silence at dinner in the second scene of the play) of a terrible ethical dilemma that he cannot tell anyone, even his wife, about; or a more politically oriented study of a repressive wave of rigid idealism in a society so riven by stress that many people in flight from it seek the “help” of medical practitioners to rid themselves of the pain of being human. This latter theme has much resonance for us today, as it did for many people in the early and mid-twentieth century when frontal lobotomies were being used to put people out of their misery. But in the process of working up this idea into an intense, ninety-minute drama Ravenhill couldn’t get the proportions right: he was so very good at writing a role for the virtuosic Ian McKellen that he allowed the audience to become fixated on McKellen’s character’s plight, to the detriment of Ravenhill’s social critique.
And so, far from seeming like a new-age Harold Pinter, in the sharp-as-a-razor dialogue and the pervasive mood of menace that truly infiltrates the play, Ravenhill finally comes off more like a new-age Arthur Miller, whose greatest play, Death of a Salesman, bears the scars of Miller’s difficulty deciding whether Willie Loman would have come to grief, like all genuine tragic heroes, no matter what society he might have come to consciousness in, or whether, had it not been for the false, inflated dreams fostered by the “smile and a shoeshine” mentality of American business enterprise, Willie might have found an easier, less glamorous but happier life working with his hands.
Ravenhill may still manage to turn what is surely the hardest trick of all, the trick that presents itself to challenge contemporary playwrights, namely, to find a way to reconcile social criticism with the presentation of a “classic” hero whose fall can finally be attributed to no one other than himself. Ironically, it’s all the harder to pull it off when you are writing for an actor as compelling and engrossing as Ian McKellen. May Ravenhill be blessed with other virtuosos the equal of this one; meanwhile, may he find a larger, more encompassing theme to effect what could prove to be his genuine tragic vision. Give me a lever long enough, said the ancient scientist, and I can move the world.