Brighton Festival 2011
Dominic West acts his mismatched socks off as Simon Gray’s self-destructive academic in this great revival of a ‘70s-set yet still psychologically pertinent comedy
Imagine if Martin Clunes’ character in Men Behaving Badly had a PHD in Eliot and an inclination to swear off women and you’ll have a sense of the enduring and popular appeal of Butley. Simon Gray’s semi-autobiographical anti-hero may be an old-school, self-destructive academic in a ‘70s English department poised on the edge of social progress – his colleagues are an independent woman and an openly gay young man, his students include a ‘plumed youth’ with Jesus sandals and a feather in his hippy hat. And there may be jokes aplenty here for the well-read, with references to ‘Laurentian wrestles’, the Living Theatre and the possibility of sympathizing with Leontes.
But with The Wire’s Dominic West acting his mismatched socks off in the lead role, opening up the play (on the evidence of the Theatre Royal audience at least) to a new generation of men, Gray’s psychologically acute comedy is so much more than an intellectually-pumped period piece. It’s a stingingly funny and really rather sad portrait of permanent, amberised adolescence.
It’s the first day of term and Butley is having a bad one. His wife (a nicely controlled cameo from Amanda Drew) wants a divorce. Her new beau and his department rival have both secured book deals. The protégé with whom he shares his house, his office, his passive cigarette smoke and the pith of his wit (a brilliantly nimble performance from Martin Hutson as Joseph, who must solicit our sympathy while demonstrating the necessary answering spark to have interested Butley in him in the first place) is making moves to extricate himself. And to make matters more infuriating, his students seem intent on being taught. The whole world seems to be in league against him, as evinced in a silent opening sequence where West does hungover battle with everything from the angle poise on his desk to the cotton wool on his bleeding chin.
But we quickly realize that Butley has made his own bed (badly, no doubt, and with defiantly crumpled linen). While he’s obsessed with the notion of having a protégé, he can hardly remember the name of his own baby. His own Eliot project has procrastinated into non-existence while he quotes instead from ‘the middle-class nursery poets’ (a strange, character-enriching tic that seems to combine mental exercise and intellectual self-flagellation with a profound desire to irritate the hell out of others). He expects others to adhere to a schoolboyish code of loyalty while taking the art of schadenfreude to whole new levels. And he seeks to control Joseph’s professional and personal life like a jealous lover.
He’s perfectly hateful, in fact, except for one quality – that redemptively contagious sense of humour, inherited directly from the playwright and physicalised by West with playful skips across the stage and devilish flashes in the eyes, which makes it a struggle not to turn any review of Butley into a list of one-liners (a sixth-form teacher, to quote just one, is compared to a fireman ‘forever called in to quench flames that are already out’). Joseph is regularly torn between cutting loose and cracking up. And even Penny Downie’s Edna giggles like a schoolgirl when Butley refers to the Principal as the ‘Faerie Queen’. Which is why he so crushingly meets his match in Joseph’s new boyfriend, the impenetrably humourless publisher Reg, played with dour northern suavity by Paul McGann. Butley is a man who compulsively pushes people too far, and West’s talent for voices (that Baltimore accent in The Wire is clearly no one-off) comes into its own as he baits Reg with an outrageously extended caricature of working class Northernness – and encounters only a dull answering fist.
Perhaps West is too great a success story himself to quite convince as a man entirely squandering his talent and his charm. Instead Lindsay Posner’s production, which is previewing in Brighton ahead of its West End run, emphasises how the fear of loneliness and failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s all set out in designer Peter McKintosh’s excellent set, in which Butley and Joseph’s shared office is split like Steptoe & Son’s scrap yard – the former’s half a den of groaning bookpiles, scattered essays and overflowing bins that provides a reverse mirror image of the perfectly ordered latter. The tragedy, for West’s Butley, is how effortlessly he could cross over, if only he chose.