Simon Gray’s play Butley, which focuses on a few hours in the life of an academic in meltdown, premiered in the West End in 1971 in a production starring Alan Bates in what was to become something of a signature role. The play has not been frequently seen since then (a Broadway production with Nathan Lane had a limited run in 2006) but now, 40 years on, it gets an excellent and very well-cast revival directed by Lindsay Posner at the Duchess Theatre.
Our eponymous protagonist, Ben Butley, is an English Literature lecturer at a college of London University. Self-absorbed and drink-dependent, we encounter him on the first day of term as he dodges persistent students, and learns that his estranged wife, Anne, is to divorce him, and that his protégé/lover, the assistant lecturer Joseph, is to leave him. Butley’s response to these and other disasters is a stream of barbed insults and a dose or two of mischief-making, a default mode that masks the protagonist’s pain regarding where his professional and personal life have ended up.
Gray’s play doesn’t feel dated: the portrait of academia - its rivalries, frustrations and insecurities - still rings true, and the dialogue retains its freshness, pungency and wit. And in our monstrous hero Gray has fashioned a vivid creation indeed. Harold Pinter, who directed the 1971 production, described Butley as “a character who hurls himself towards destruction while living, in the fever of his intellectual hell, with a vitality and brilliance known to few of us. He courts death by remaining ruthlessly - even dementedly - alive.”
All of these interesting contradictions are embraced in Dominic West’s dynamic performance. His Butley is at once petty and shrewd, captivating and awful, charismatic and impossible. Physically lithe and vocally dexterous, the actor brings a marvellous gusto to the invective while also communicating the insecurity and sheer neediness that underpin it. Indeed, what’s especially impressive about West’s performance here is how it shows - without a hint of sentimentality - Butley’s bluster to be the recourse of a man who’s sick at heart, and who can deal with loss and failure only by lashing out, alienating those he desires to bring closer. It’s an indelible portrait of a man set upon sabotaging himself that gives the piece its measure of poignancy and power.
West is well supported by Martin Hutson, who is at once deeply sympathetic and ever-so-slightly irritating as Joseph, the young man who knows he must escape Butley’s grasp. As the stolid Reg, Joseph’s new lover and facilitator of that escape, Paul McGann also makes his mark in a memorably tense and funny encounter with Butley in which the latter’s penchant for insult goes into overdrive. (McGann’s brilliantly controlled performance lets us know that Reg will give Joseph neither the pain, nor the excitement, that he’s experienced with Butley, and that that’s why he’s necessary to him.) Amanda Drew, meanwhile, brings a marvellous straightforwardness to her brief appearance as Anne, but it’s a woefully underwritten role. Penny Downie is luckier: as Edna, a colleague of Butley’s who’s dealing with a problem student, this expert actress manages to pack the suggestion of a whole life history into a handful of scenes, imbuing them with fresh and surprising touches. And I also enjoyed Emma Hiddleston as Miss Heasman, the student whose eager persistence at gaining a tutorial with Butley is finally shaken when she finds him pretending to projectile vomit over her essay on The Winter’s Tale.
Set as it is in one room on one day - a conceit that leads to a good self-reflexive joke on the “three unities,” one example of much enjoyable “literary” banter in the play - there’s a static quality to Butley that Posner’s production can’t quite solve. Even though Peter McKintosh’s office set is both imposing and expressive, there’s little to engage the eye here except the actors. In addition, the play doesn’t, ultimately, go quite as deep as you might hope, and there’s a sense of anti-climax about the ending, which requires a stronger punch-line. Nonetheless, this is a highly entertaining evening, and a must-see for West’s tour-de-force alone.
Butley runs for 2 hours 20 minutes. It's at the Duchess until August 27th.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.