Butley is a play very much written from an insider’s point of view. Simon Gray was himself a lecturer of English and Queen Mary College, London as well as being a heavy smoker, drinker and in possession of a deadly array of words and witticisms. Ben Butley is also all of the above (university unspecified however) and although the autobiographical nature of the play was only confirmed to be ‘up to a point’ the similarity in the characters of the author and the lead makes for an intriguing study of what is an undeniably awful day in the life of Ben Butley. The realism of the character and the situation really strikes very close to home.
The homoerotic undertones of the piece are played incredibly well by the cast and you can feel the echo of Gray’s own experiences in the voices of the characters and of course the words they use. Gray himself had developed many close friendships with men over the course of his life but he wasn’t gay, though he was amused by the question and certainly loved the company of men. Butley is of a similar ilk as well, his friendship with his colleague and protégé Joseph being as close to a married life as one is likely to achieve without actually being married, a relationship made even more tense by Joseph’s homosexuality.
On this count and on many others Dominic West is in inspirational form, bounding around the stage with the energy of an antelope that’s been caught by a lion and is furiously lashing out in every way it can before it is brought down. People often talk of a ball and the importance of not letting it drop and if there is any performance on the West End at the moment that exemplifies this it is Dominic West’s here. He has clearly put a great deal of effort into creating the character of Ben Butley and reaps the rewards of his endeavours. The realism of the character and the ease with which he speaks the lines is remarkable, with every line, no matter how quick or witty, having a clear point of inception and purpose. There is an awful lot of hectic, chaotic madness but at every point you are aware that there is method in it. The many moments of madness are imbued with such energy that they never cease to be anything other than hilarious, further boosted by West’s talent for comedy. There are also a few moments of sudden transition from humour to seriousness and West handles them well, instantly changing the atmosphere in the room and engaging the audience.
He is also a very generous performer, allowing his fellow cast members their moments and giving them as much opportunity as he can, which is a dynamic that works especially well with Martin Hutson’s Joseph. Hutson gives a nervous energy to the show that plays very well with the frantic nature of Butley himself. The relationship between the two is a varied one, with moments of closeness and moments of friction interwoven in a strikingly natural and true-to-life fashion. Hutson himself also gives what is a very strong performance as the younger man desperately trying to find a way to remove himself from his relationship with Butley, his characterisation being second only to West in the show.
The other performance that really stood out for me was from Penny Downie who played Edna Shaft, another lecturer in the university English department that has been struggling with her own issues, such as an unfinished book of literary criticism and a tediously deviant student. Her performance added an air of mystery to the show as she and Butley talk and act as if they have a great deal of history but neither ever mentions explicitly what this history is. Inasmuch as Butley pushes away everyone he cares about, including his students, West and Downie certainly add a powerfully subtle dynamic between the two characters that adds a further layer to what is already an impressive script. The phone calls from the perpetually elusive Dean and the constant interruptions from Downie place Butley and Joe in a wider picture that is well illustrated by Downie’s strong showing.
The set design was something else that I thoroughly enjoyed with the difference between the stark left-hand side of the stage that corresponded to Joe and the cluttered and overflowing right-hand side that was clearly Butley’s domain. Lots of the physical gags were very good as well and were only able to be so because of Peter McKintosh’s apt setting.
The small size of the roles of the students serve to demonstrate Butley’s prowess in avoiding student contact but they are strong as well, particularly Emma Hiddleston as the keen student who wants her essays read so that she may find her way into teaching herself, suitably put down by Butley, saying that A-Level teachers are like firemen called out to quench a fire long since out.
All in all, I think this show was incredibly good fun above all else and a showcase of fantastic talent, particularly from Dominic West as he is allowed to indulge himself in a comedy role, taking to it like someone with prader-willi syndrome to cake and it is delightful to watch. I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a go, especially if you have a prior connection to either university, lecturers, teachers or English.
Written by Simon Gray; Directed by Lindsay Posner; At the Duchess Theatre; Starring Dominic West, Paul McGann, Penny Downie, Amanda Drew, Martin Hutson, Emma Hiddleston, Cal Brigden; Runs from 06 June 11 - 27 August 11.
John Ord (28/06/2011)