In his new play, Mark Ravenhill transports us to a nightmarish future. Something called "the cut" plays an important, if controversial, part in that society of tomorrow. It is administered by a suited civil-servant type to a shoeless man dressed only in a sort of red pyjama outfit that calls Guantanamo Bay to mind.
Whether the cut is a lobotomy or actually lethal is not explained. Has the man been convicted, or is the procedure part of a programme of social control? Society has its winners and losers, that much is clear. The victim, John, indicates that his ancestors all had the cut. He is black and the civil servant, Paul, is white, but maybe that is merely a coincidence.
The paradox is that the captive wants to undergo the operation, while the official would rather persuade him to choose another route. Paul is terrified of the spiritual pain he will suffer if forced to administer the cut. He offers prison or university as options. Paul confides that he has a son in each. In tomorrow's world there seems to be little difference between the two.
Leaflets help the victim make his selection. Ravenhill uses all the jargon of modern government to suggest that the hellish world he has created is not far removed from our time or our way of thinking. Paul complains of new directives received every day, and has targets and performance indicators to conform to.
A policy of inclusiveness has led him to employ a nurse who is deaf and cannot speak. He runs through a feedback form with John, dwelling on the question of whether he was subject to any unnecessary brutality, asking him to assess his pre-cut treatment on a scale of one to five. He describes the reforms to the cut brought in by the new government: a programme called "Softening the Blow". He might as well be discussing improvements to the national curriculum.
Paul is clearly disillusioned with his work. He fears assassination but flirts with suicide. It weighs on him that he is too ashamed of what he does to tell his beautiful wife. Their love life is at a low ebb. Perhaps the burden of his secret makes him screw up his eyes during sex. It certainly puts her off that, when they make love, he appears to be grieving.
Why John demands the cut in preference to the easier options is harder to fathom. He says he wants to be released from the pains of consciousness, which Paul regards as misplaced idealism. There could be a political motive. Agitation against the cut is brewing in the universities.
Ian McKellen, as Paul, gives a magnificent performance. He does the little things so well: absent-mindedly stirring his coffee or ticking boxes on his forms. In a scene with his wife, he silently reads a newsy letter from their son Stephen. As he takes in each sentence, McKellen delivers a series of facial reactions that are perfectly measured and timed - and utterly convincing.
Jimmy Akingbola plays his victim. It is a hard part, given how little we understand his position, and the performance is complicated by a passage during which the roles are partially reversed: John becomes the dominant figure when he hypnotises Paul. Now it is the official who longs to be permanently released from consciousness. But Akingbola always makes an adequate foil for McKellen.
When Paul goes home after his gruesome day at work, we encounter another facet of Ravenhill's grim future. Paul's wife, Susan (Deborah Findlay), is obsessed by the shortcomings of her house servant. Complaining about how the girl breaks crockery or fails as a cook occupies Susan completely and wears her out. In a desperate search for some release, she has even decided to do some of the shopping herself. Whenever Paul tells her how much he loves her, she strays again to the topic of shoddy housework. There is bite to the part as well. Susan has had a vision of her husband at work - or maybe that is her way of saying that she has discovered his secret. Influenced by Stephen's university radicalism, she rounds on her husband for his shameful employment. Findlay carries the part superbly.
In a short final scene, Paul is confronted by Stephen (Tom Burke). Time has passed and there has been a change of regime. Stephen has moved on from student politics to become a man of influence. Paul stands condemned by both the new administration and his son. He wins at least some of our sympathy because we saw him struggling to escape administering the cut, to avoid doing what he was paid to do. Also, nothing about Stephen makes us think that the world has become a better place.
Ravenhill's play, directed by Michael Grandage, contains interesting ideas. I had a feeling that somehow it had not achieved its full potential or quite carried its point home. But there is enough good writing and acting to guarantee enjoyment.
Booking on 0870 060 6624 to 1 April, then touring to the Lowry, Salford (0870 787 5790), Bristol Old Vic (0117 987 7877) and Liverpool Playhouse (0151 709 4776)