The Cut

Mark Ravenhill
Donmar Warehouse
(2006)

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Mark Ravenhill made such an impression with his first major work, Shopping and F***ing, that whatever else he writes, it is for that play that he will be remembered.

He has now come a long way from the days when male rape was de rigueur in his plays; and almost every character seemed to be saddled with a desperate need for love and a drug-fuelled death-wish.

Ravenhill is now a more mature writer and The Cut has far more of the character of his last work, Product, which appeared at the Traverse in Edinburgh last year and then very briefly at the Royal Court.

This is a contemplative work that considers society from the oblique angle of a terrifying and hardly intelligible dystopia. It is likely that there will be comparisons with 1984, Brave New World and also Harold Pinter's more obscure work, perhaps most significantly No Man's Land or Ashes to Ashes.

The focal point is a surgeon, Paul, played by Sir Ian McKellen, a long, long way from New Zealand and The Lord of the Rings. As the ninety minute play develops, he moves through three scenes, each of which features him in dialogue with one other character.

The first scene matches the doctor with a black patient, John, played by Jimmy Akingbola. This pair has a debate that borders on argument about whether John should have the Cut or a more humane alternative. The army, university or even prison are regarded as infinitely preferable. The nature of the Cut itself is not stated although at the end of the scene, under blood red lighting we see it administered.

Interestingly, it is John who wishes to follow the tradition of being subjected to the Cut, while the tired doctor, who has been a Cut man all his life, is opposed to it.

The second scene sees Paul in the living room of his home with his wife Susan, played by Deborah Findlay. Their marriage is desperately unhappy, not aided by her instability and their lengthy sexual abstinence.

This is the kind of play where the small actions are often as important as the large and Susan's treatment of their immigrant maid Mina is telling. She regards her as little better than an animal and far less desirable than a pet, thus demonstrating the patriarchal attitude of her society to the downtrodden who must expect to face the Cut.

The final scene shows Paul in a meeting with Tom Burke as his upwardly-mobile son, Stephen. The revolution has finally occurred and the formerly all-powerful doctor is now a prisoner.

Michael Grandage's careful direction is reminiscent of Peter Stein's recent effort with Blackbird and Sir Ian McKellen gives a great naturalistic performance in the central role.

The support is also strong, particularly from Deborah Findlay and Jimmy Akingbola in contrasting ways, the former combining cynicism with stress while the latter is far more strident.

Ravenhill deliberately keeps the location of this allegorical play secret. It is therefore possible to view it as a direct comment on colonialism and its devaluation of black lives, on Nazi concentration camp experimentation or possibly on a current British Government that appears to many to regard almost any disadvantaged immigrant as an undesirable.

While it has its longueurs, The Cut is a fascinating, thought-provoking play that will leave its audience thinking deeply about what is said on stage and far more so about what is not. As the person sitting next to this reviewer on the opening night said, "I really wish that I could watch it again, now". It's that kind of play.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher