You have to give it up for Dominic West. Since finding fame and fortune as flawed cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, he has set himself huge targets on stage; breathing fiery life into the impossible Segismundo in Life is a Dream at the Donmar, and taking on Iago later this year in his home town of Sheffield.
The middle portrait in this triptych of gabbing, self-obsessed lunatic misanthropes is Ben Butley, Simon Gray’s intensely dislikeable English tutor in a London University college who, in the course of a decidedly downbeat day, gloats over his own dismissal by (he thinks, withdrawal from) the rest of the world.
In West End folklore, the role was defined by Alan Bates in 1971, whose accommodating charms made the desiccated bore irresistible. Since then, I’ve only seen John Nettles have a go (in 1984). West bravely and uncompromisingly exposes Butley for the bastard he undoubtedly is, and the play for its shocking rawness.
Gray himself was dismayed by Butley’s misogyny. I think today we find deep self-loathing in his script, and an astounding, casual cruelty (is this a mark of honesty, or self-indulgence? I don’t know) in the way Butley treats everyone who comes to call: the wife he’s about to divorce, the newly published female academic colleague he patronises, his protégé’s new lover, the students he despises.
It’s like watching Molière, naked, and Lindsay Posner’s unsparing production (designed by Peter McKintosh with a towering, cluttered library on one side of the stage) offers few consolations outside of the ferocity of West’s merciless performance. His assistant lecturer, Joseph, harassed by his Herrick project, is beautifully done by Martin Hutson, an antiphonal tenor to West’s bruising baritone.
The lacerating manner in which Butley discusses his own sexuality (“I’m a one-woman man, and I’ve had mine, thank God”) and the class origins of Joseph’s new publisher boyfriend, place the piece in the vanguard of what theatre dealt with forty years ago; and it still stings.
Around the central duet, Paul McGann is surprising and sinister as Joseph’s new beau, Reg Nuttall, and there are superbly contrasting performances of defeat and disappointment by Amanda Drew as the wife and Penny Downie as the derided colleague. It’s a period piece, but a valuable one in its unflinching look at spiritual corruption and cynicism in the world of public discourse and higher education.