Sunday, 3 July 2011

Butley: a slightly uncomfortable evening

While my creative writing has been a bit thin on the ground in recent months (and that's another story), we have been doing a lot of cultural stuff of late, so I thought it was probably worth cranking up the blog again.

I've seen more West End plays than films in recent months, and the most recent was Butley by Simon Gray, at the Duchess Theatre.

As luck would have it, Butley is also - as far as I know - the only play to be dedicated to me (along with, admittedly, all the other staff and students, past, present and future, of the English department at the University of London's Queen Mary College).

Simon Gray had finished teaching at QMC a couple of years before I arrived there, but there was still a shudder of recognition in the setting of the play, about a mercurial but abrasive English lecturer with a gift for pushing people away as vigorously as he tries to keep them close. 

The title role was played by Dominic West, who, as an Old Etonian contemporary of David Cameron, presumably had plenty of material to draw on in breathing life into the vile, snobbish academic with an all-devouring sense of entitlement.

However, while West carried the play admirably, it was the response of the audience that gave me the most food for thought on the evening. 

In a key scene in the second half of the play, Butley launches into a mocking and derisory tirade at Reg (Paul McGann), the gay lover of his former student and current lodger Joe (Martin Hutson), who's now a lecturer himself and shares an office with Butley.

Butley is trying to sabotage Joe and Reg's relationship so that Joe won't move out and leave him alone, and he does it by trying to provoke Reg with taunts over his northern roots and the fact that Butley believes his parents to be a butcher and a traffic warden (ie, far enough down the social scale to attract Butley's contempt).

Now I've lived in London longer than I lived in Lancashire, and I've never really thought of myself as a chippy northerner. However, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable as the characteristically monocultural audience seemed to take great delight in Butley's increasingly desperate and vicious taunts. 

But even leaving aside the 'northern' thing, it seemed to exemplify the unpleasant social trend for snobbery not only to be acceptable but admirable. 

Maybe there's some sort of aspirational thing going on whereby people are pleased to think they can elevate their own status by demonstrating their contempt for anyone they perceive to be their social inferior. Call it the Vicky Pollard Effect

That strange feeling continued to the end of the play, when Butley had managed to turn everyone against him and was left on his own to consider his isolation. As the lights irised out on him, I'm sure I heard one or two awwws from the surrounding seats. 

Anyway, I'm prepared to accept that I might have just been a bit oversensitive and that I was just getting the tiniest of inklings of what 'proper' minorities must feel a lot of the time when facing the mainstream media. 

However, it was the first time I've felt that out of place in more than twenty years of fairly regular theatre-going. At least I'm still capable of experiencing something new.

(Maybe coincidentally, the BFI is staging a Simon Gray season later in the year including the film version of Butley, starring Alan Bates and directed by Harold Pinter. It'll be interesting to see how the focus on Butley's behaviour has changed since 1974, when social mobility might not have been quite such a dangerous concept.)

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