Arts review: Butley

Simon Gray's sharp portrait of a self-sabotaging T.S. Eliot scholar remains poignantly recognisable, observes Deborah Bowman

June 9, 2011

Credit: Tristram Kenton
Departmental politics: Ben Butley (Dominic West, left) taunts his junior colleague Joey (Martin Hutson)

It has been four decades since Simon Gray introduced Ben Butley. Butley is a magnificent mess: a complex, self-destructive academic who interacts with the world via a contrary mix of cruel humour, intellectual ferocity, savage sarcasm, relentless cynicism and angry dependence.

The academy has long been a fertile source of inspiration for dramatists. University life in all its forms has been captured in David Mamet's intense exploration of sexual politics and the student-tutor relationship in Oleanna, Rodney Clark's bitingly funny exposition on the role of the external examiner in The External, and, more recently, Richard Bean's satirical look at research that inconveniently challenges received academic wisdom in The Heretic. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Butley's first performance (directed by Harold Pinter), this West End production has Dominic West in the eponymous role. What does the play tell us about the life of an academic, and is it a valuable insight into the 21st-century university?

The academy portrayed in Gray's play is, inevitably, of its time. Ben Butley chain-smokes in his office (indeed, that he has an office at all reveals that this is a period piece). His conversations with both colleagues and students are littered with breathtakingly casual insults and the kind of bullying that today would lead directly to disciplinary action and an employment tribunal. The shift in Butley's research focus from T.S. Eliot to the middle-class nursery poets reflects a time when funding council priorities, metrics and the research excellence framework were unknown. Yet Butley still has much to say about the residual power of the pedagogical relationship, the coexistence of misdirected intellectual brilliance and emotional ineptitude, the effects of the personal on the professional and the politics and tribalism of higher education.

Butley's relationships are fractious and dysfunctional: his marriage is in disarray, his students are peremptorily dismissed and his colleagues are the targets of an endless stream of dissent and contempt. Perhaps his most significant, ambiguous and affecting relationship is with Joey, his former student protege and now a junior colleague and flatmate. It is through Butley's interactions with Joey that we are reminded of the potency of an inspirational teacher, the power imbalance in the pedagogic structure and the dynamic shifts that occur as students and their teachers negotiate their relationships to graduation and beyond. The intensity, dependence and ambivalence that characterise the bond between Butley and Joey infuse their exchanges with each other and with others. Education is revealed to be an inherently emotional endeavour in which the personal inevitably mixes with the professional. In Butley, the interplay of charisma, malevolently directed energy, co-dependence, individual vulnerabilities and hidden agendas is evident. And as he unravels, Butley demonstrates how swiftly a role model can become a cautionary tale.

As Joey seeks to make professional progress, Butley sabotages his own academic career. While Joey frets about both being, and being seen to be, collegial, Butley scorns his efforts to fit in, and taunts and manipulates him into believing he has committed faux pas with key figures in the English department. Many scholars will recognise only too well Gray's portrayal of the academy as an environment in which networking, professional allegiances and patronage influence progression.

As Joey experiments with aligning himself with the "right" people, Butley sneers from the sidelines while deftly exploiting Joey's insecurities. Butley's intellectual brilliance might have inspired generations of T.S. Eliot scholars and led to productive academic collaborations with colleagues, but instead it is expended on ridiculing and manipulating those around him. There is much mischievous humour to be found in Butley's vivid mocking of academic alliances and hierarchies. But embedded in the rapier deflation of academic egos and institutional norms is a man who is ultimately losing all the games he is seemingly compelled not only to play, but to initiate.

This revival is an excellent interpretation under the direction of Lindsay Posner. Peter McKintosh's set, a cramped academic office, reflects the principal characters. Butley's side of the room is in perilous disarray, with every surface covered, and books and papers towering precariously over his desk. In contrast, Joey is trapped in the shared environment and tries hard to draw physical and emotional boundaries between him and the insidious influence of his colleague.

The performances are exemplary, convincing and absorbing. In a play that demands so much of its leading man, the compelling West, best known for his role in the HBO television series The Wire, delivers. He is a vivid bundle of destructive energy whose demise is simultaneously fascinatingly appalling and terribly sad. Martin Hutson as Joey beautifully captures a man trying to move on from the suffocating confines of his relationship with his former mentor while retaining not only a residual loyalty to, but a grudging affection for, Butley. Hutson's portrayal deftly conveys the uncomfortable excitement and guilty amusement that lie beneath the disapproval Joey outwardly shows towards Butley's taunts and barbs. There are strong supporting performances from Penny Downie as a departmental colleague who has finally managed to publish her opus on Byron, Paul McGann as Reg, Joey's new partner, and Amanda Drew as the wife who is no longer prepared to endure the chaos of life with Butley.

For some, Butley's relentless sarcasm and merciless mocking preclude identification with, and sympathy for, his self-induced demise, making the play fundamentally problematic. Indeed, it is telling that Alan Bates, who originated the role on stage and went on to reprise it in a 1974 film adaptation, spoke protectively about Butley in response to those who suggested that he is a wholly dislikeable misanthrope, arguing that Butley is more vulnerable than anyone he insults. The tragedy is that no one exploits Butley's vulnerability more than he does himself. Ben Butley is as much damaged as damaging. The shaving cut he picks at throughout the play is a physical manifestation of the internal wounds that he compulsively aggravates.

While it is something of a stretch to suggest that Butley is appealing, he is mesmerising. What's more, there will be few academics who can say that they have not, on occasion, wished that they could express their frustrations at university life with the degree of acerbic honesty that is Butley's stock-in-trade. Anyone who has ever written a paper or a book will identify with the particular form of disturbance that failing to publish can induce. Others may privately admit to recognising the combination of envy and insecurity that the success of his departmental peers provokes in Butley.

Butley's representation of the rivalries, alliances, inherent competitiveness and unspoken norms that constitute what it is to be "collegial" in academia is as resonant as it is unsettling. This revival has much to offer theatregoers. For the theatregoer who is also an academic, it is a darkly funny, entertaining and unsettling evening that comes particularly recommended.

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