Dominic West opens his superb performance in Butley with a passage of comic stage business that almost rivals that of Mark Rylance’s early-morning routine in Jerusalem. He saunters into his tatty office, plonks himself down at his spectacularly untidy desk, hurls his damp raincoat and a banana skin on to his colleague’s pristine desk and then goes to extraordinary lengths to swap his broken desk lamp with his workmate’s functioning one. It is a fabulous display of bad behaviour. But he is on his own. He won’t, we console ourselves, continue like this in company.
Oh but he does. And how. In Butley, Simon Gray created a portrait of a middle-aged English lecturer bent on self-destruction. Ben Butley has clearly been brilliant, but somewhere along the line he has lost faith and become an unstable mix of wit, devilment, despair and recklessness. His marriage has collapsed, but he treats a visit from his wife with sardonic contempt and affects to forget his daughter’s name. He tries to sabotage the romantic life of his gay colleague and housemate, Joey. He ridicules his students and stirs up academic trouble for an earnest female lecturer (a lovely, flustered performance from Penny Downie). He is poisonous, devious and outrageous.
But, as West conveys, Butley is also a desperately lonely man. West pitches the character beautifully, making him witty, brash and unpredictable, a performer terrified of losing his audience. He wheels about the stage, bullying the timid Joey (beautifully drawn by Martin Hutson) and spouting one-liners. At the same time, West shows us glimpses of fear and self-loathing in his character. Is he bisexual? Probably – but whatever his sexuality, his tragedy is that he loses those he might love because he cannot admit that he needs them. His reaction, and he knows it, is to dig himself deeper into a lonely hole.
The play is tricky to pull off, however. It observes, as Butley drily reminds us, the classical unities of time, place and action. What this means in practice is that it never budges from one room and involves little action and a great deal of talk, which can become stodgy and irritating. The other characters, particularly the women, are underwritten.
But the performances in Lindsay Posner’s fine 1970s revival keep you watching, and at quiet moments you can always let your eye wander around Peter McKintosh’s set, which takes the expression “to be in a brown study” and runs with it.