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Butley

Simon Gray
Duchess Theatre
(2011)

Butley publicity image

To maintain the alliteration, Ben Butley's middle name could easily have been "bitter". The English Literature professor seems to have completed a doctorate in schadenfreude but, in point of fact (and that phrase is a recurring motif), the real victim of his hatred and humiliation is Butley himself.

Despite that, anyone who comes within his range ends up hurt and insulted by a man in self-destruct mode.

The worrying thing about this 1970 play is that it must have been very much more than semi-autobiographical, since the late Simon Gray was a former academic with a drink problem, specialising in English and caustic wit.

For those who see theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, The Wire star Dominic West must compete with memories of an in-form Nathan Lane, who played the title role on Broadway five years ago.

Overall, West delivers, although his main strengths come in the few moments of calm between the torrid verbal storms of an individual who sees life as a performance, hiding his true feelings behind a barrier of bombast and sarcasm.

Butley is one of those men who cannot leave well alone, possibly due to his deep love for alcohol and its ability to allow him to shy away from his own weaknesses.

At different times during the day portrayed in just under 2½ stage hours his fall is compared to both Shakespeare's Leontes and any number of Greek tragic heroes. While this blustering man-child seems to have few heroic traits, there are glimpses of the brilliant scholar and wit who has been consumed by an alter ego specialising in self-loathing as much as T.S. Eliot. There is also a great deal of comedy, though always tinged with cruelty.

Although West inevitably remains centre stage throughout, others get their chances to shine. Martin Hutson plays Joey, his weak homosexual foil and one-time paramour, as a shy, weak man unable to escape like a fly in a spider's web.

One question that is not explicitly resolved is whether they have been more than the closest of friends and certainly, the very camp Butley's jealousy contains many of the traits of an ex-lover. Indeed he is far closer to Joey than his soon to be ex-wife, Anne.

Amongst a stream of fine cameos, perhaps Penny Downie scores most highly as a constantly wounded, frumpish colleague who lives for her work and thereby provides an obvious contrast with Butley.

Paul McGann, playing Joey's Pinteresque new lover, and Amanda Drew as calm, stylish Anne also have their moments in Lindsay Posner's very strong cast.

While the central character is on the surface intensely infuriating, the power of this work lies in his ability to offer glimpses of the hopeful genius that he must have been before self-pity took over and wrecked his life.

Even what seems like a redemptive ending is stolen away but then one may at least hope that this might be because this negative version of Peter Pan has realised that he must grow up at long last.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher