Why does a renowned RUC detective inspector, despatched to England to interrogate a young IRA suspect and turn him informer, choose to throw away his career and flush the prosecution case down the pan by subjecting the Catholic to a ferocious beating the moment they are finally alone? This is the puzzle dangling over Rat in the Skull, Ron Hutchinson's award- winning 1984 play.
In Stephen Daldry's revival - the first in a West End season of Royal Court classics - that query is initially upstaged by another question. Namely, why has the director elected to forswear the austere simplicity of the original staging and convert the sedate proscenium-arched purlieus of the Duke of York's into a baleful prison environment? The stalls area is now covered over with clanging metallic walkways, and at the centre of these, there's a diamond-shaped, earth-filled pit. The enveloping auditorium is hung with photographs evoking the Troubles. It's all very striking, but does serving a sentence in these surroundings serve the play well?
Though Rufus Sewell's IRA youth has to make conscientious use of his swivel-chair to ensure each half of the audience gets to gawp at his brilliantly acted twitching / flinching resistance to the interrogator's onslaught, there's no doubt that positioning this pair in a central pit heightens a sense of the confrontation's ritual nature and that proximity to the action gives an unnerving immediacy. On the other hand, the design at times imposes awkward distances between interlocutors or sends people on lengthy artificial detours or picks out certain themes with an over- diagrammatic clarity.
Burly, florid-faced, sportily-blazered, with intimidating body language made all the more unsettling by abruptly switching tack, Tony Doyle's superb RUC man parades the supposedly vast differences between himself and the youth he is interrogating in long, scaldingly sarcastic arias that are, in fact, mordant parodies of Protestant / Catholic stereotyping in Ulster. Doyle looks like a man sitting on a powder keg, but the play fools you at first about the cause and object of this pent-up anger. What it dramatises is his painful realisation that, trapped in the same cycles of mutual hatred, he and the suspect have more in common with each other than he has with the English police, and it is significant that they jointly conspire to be left on their own by the inexperienced supervising constable (Pearce Quigley). William Dudley's design has them literally occupying a different patch of earth, onto which Quigley and John Castle's English superintendent contemptuously toss their cardboard coffee cups at the end, as they abandon them to their ancestral, deathly symbiosis. At such moments, it's a bit like having somebody whispering "geddit?" in your ear.
Looked at from a post-ceasefire perspective, certain details in the play have dated. It remains and will remain a classic, though, not least because of the compelling ambiguity of the RUC man's violence: an attempt to break free from the programmed patterns of hatred (no case left, no names extorted) through an explosion of what looks (and maybe feels) like atavistic vengeance.
Duke of York's Theatre to 18 Nov; (0171-836 5122)
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