As the University of York’s Drama Barn welcomes a new year of varied and exciting performances, Unknown Magazine were able to chat with some of the cast and crew of The Ruling Class. Set amid a struggle for power in the upper strata of elite English society, Peter Barne’s satire follows the newly acceded 14th Earl of Gurney, Jack, who – as a possible paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex – must deal with the new title and a deviously scheming family.
Without too many spoilers, would you give us a quick summary of your character?
George Doughty, playing Charles Gurney: Sir Charles is a very devious character – everything he does throughout the play is to boost his own wealth and status. He sees everything and everyone as expendable; no-one is safe from his constant scheming, making him a very disloyal and distrustful character. But who doesn’t love a good villain?
Harry Elletson, playing Dinsdale Gurney: Dinsdale is the fool of the Gurney family, a charming idiot who’s never wanted for anything in his life. He is such a wonderful joy to play as he has so much room for interpretation and to have fun with. I can’t wait to share him with the world, it will be something special to say the least!
The lives of the English nobility are, for the most part, quite different from those of university students – what makes it such a great choice for the Drama Barn?
Harry: This play is very well suited to the barn because we are satirising a society that is frequently stereotyped and attached to Russell Group universities like our own. It enables us to be larger than life characters and yet still be understood.
Samantha Finlay, Co-Director: This show is primarily about the aristocracy, but there are many moments that could be appreciated by a modern, non-noble, audience. The Barn has not seen a play like this for a while, and I really think the audience will be able to relate to some of the interesting family dynamics and appreciate the bizarre situations. Their humour is edgy, and a bit raucous, and is definitely not something we’ve had in the barn recently, and I believe that students would definitely find this show hugely entertaining.
A “razor-sharp satire [which] combines a ferocious mix of hilarity and horror” – of the two, which have been the most enjoyable or difficult to bring to life?
George: I think the horror has been the most enjoyable, but at the same time most difficult theme to bring to life. We have had to take many traits of our characters and exaggerate them significantly in order to get this twisted depiction of the ruling class, which at the same time also provides hilarity.
Harry: I think it is the delightful combination of the two that has proven the most enjoyable and difficult to act. The fact that such ludicrousness accompanies such darkness is what makes this play so entertaining, you never know where the story is going to go – be ready for a surprise or five!
Samantha: Both the humour and the horror are so well written into the script that they primarily work together. The comedy of this piece is so well crafted, most of the jokes basically tell themselves, and the horror is equally as well presented. However, I have enjoyed bringing the horror to life more than the humour. The audience is expecting to laugh – and they will – but I want to make them really scared too.
The fact that such ludicrousness accompanies such darkness is what makes this play so entertaining, you never know where the story is going to go – be ready for a surprise or five!
Though a comedy, the show does deal with the serious nature of mental health issues and their wider perception. How does the play, in itself and in your portrayal, manage this?
George: I think the play deals with the issue of mental illness in many ways. Each character, to an extent, has some form of mental illness but Jack’s is the only one that is ‘properly’ dealt with. I think through the great lengths and number of experiments the family goes through to prove Jack is insane or have him cured highlights how mental illness was poorly tackled in the 60s and to some extent even to this day. The hilarity surrounding the family’s methods for Jack’s illness ultimately is used for satirical effect to show how people of mental disability were – and still are – ridiculed for being different.
Samantha: As the directors, we have spent a lot of time discussing the effects of mental illness in this play. We have dealt with most of the mental illness through conversations with the actors, primarily Christian Loveless, the actor playing Jack Gurney. The Ruling Class does not deal with a modern portrayal of mental health, but rather a 60’s representation; their world reacts to it differently. We also focused on how the other characters reacted to the mental illness, as well as how we portray it in an interesting way, whilst still respecting it enough to not undermine the seriousness of illness.
Finally, if you could use one word to describe the show, what would it be?
The Ruling Class is showing 7.30pm 14th-16th October at the Drama Barn, University of York.