Butley, by Simon Grey was first staged in 1971 at the Criterion Theatre, London. It won the 1971 Evening Standard Award for Best Play, with a headline cast including Alan Bates in the role of Butley. The play is about an academic whose life is falling apart. The eponymous lead has an acerbic wit and his dialogue is littered with references that range from classical Greek tragedy to Beatrix Potter. For those of us brought up on a diet of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin there’s something both comforting and disturbing about the script for that reason. The entire play takes place in the study that Butley shares with his younger protege. During that one afternoon, Butley’s life falls apart before us.
For this production the lead role is played by Dominic West, with a supporting cast that includes Paul McGann, Martin Hutson and Penny Downie. The play was well paced and fast moving, dialogue fluent and convincing. Dominic West conveyed a perfect balance of arrogance and despair while Paul McGann was a convincing and credible gay, Northern man-made-good and Martin Hutson was sensitive and nervy in his role as the young protege/lover.
To some extent the play reflects values and expectations of the past. It’s impossible for us to roll back time and see the issues through the eyes of the audience in the early 70s and I suspect as such much of the ‘shock’ factor of the play has been lost. It was a pleasant and entertaining evening, the production was seamless but the play not entirely inspiring.