Marcos Ordonnez, in Puro Teatro, 13/08/11. Translated by N & J Henfrey

Dominic West, the immortal detective McNulty in The Wire, triumphs in the West End with Butley, the black comedy that made Simon Gray’s name and that of his principal actor, Alan Bates.

It’s hard to believe that it has taken 40 years for Butley (1971), the work that brought Simon Gray before the public, to be re-staged in the West End. Gray (1936-2008) was a happy anomaly in the panorama of the British theatre. He emerged at the end of the 1960s as a writer of black comedies (Wise Child, Dutch Uncle) in the style of Orton, but soon found his own voice, developing on from Rattigan and Coward. This, together with his lack of political engagement (the biggest artistic sin apparent at that time) exposed him to the charge of anachronism and, Heaven help us, ‘commercialism’. He wrote a lot, and in diverse forms, another unpardonable sin: 5 novels, 8 volumes of memoirs, innumerable works for television, cinema and radio, essays, reviews and more than 30 plays. Harold Pinter, his great friend and supporter, directed 10 of the last (which raised eyebrows) and the majority of them were successes: we could leave the matter there.

His protagonists, self-destructive, badly brought-up and badly behaved, are always on the edge of the abyss (which they try to conceal by alcohol, pills, savage humour, torrents of words), in fear of failure, loneliness and death. Butley established the paradigm and opened the door to a trilogy (similar subjects, tonalities, couples) that was completed by Otherwise Engaged in 1974 (one day we shall have to study its more than possible influence on Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea) and, the ultimate turn of the screw, Quartermaine’s Terms (1982): in these plays, the violence (adultery, murder, blackmail) happens off stage. Butley, as funny as it is painful, is marvellously written and structured. In a single day, Professor Ben Butley, a literature teacher at London University, is going to throw out everything that matters to him, which is secretly what he seems to want to do. Nicholas Wright has very intelligently discerned a ‘Racinian format’ in Gray’s imbroglio: a respect for the Three Unities, a protagonist trapped in a building, each visitor a fresh nail in the coffin, an implacable concatenation of events and a destiny that is sealed by the end of the day.

Ben Butley, exultant in his refusal to conform, an alcoholic and a failure, is more than possibly the son of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger and Bette Davis in The Anniversary. Complete the picture with other delicious characteristics (scoundrel, manipulator, misogynist and, to round it all off, a macho homophobic bisexual); it only remains to make a dartboard out of his face. The great challenge (and the great achievement) of Simon Gray is simultaneously to make you a) detest Butley, b) be fascinated/attracted by his ferocious humour and ever present energy, and c) finish by understanding and sympathising. This fellow who wastes his talents and affections is his own worst alprazolam enemy. You don’t need to be an acute observer to realise that Butley is a great gift to an actor. With this text and Pinter’s directing, it was Alan Bates’ greatest triumph. You can get the DVD in the matchless collection of films of the American Film Theatre, or you can go to London (finishes 27 August) to see in the Duchess theatre another huge comic, Dominic West, unforgettable as detective McNulty in The Wire. Here he seems to be the juvenile version of Dr Bishop (John Noble), the eccentric scientist in The Fringe. That West was a big shot on film we very well knew, but I hadn’t yet seen him deliver a controlled performance on stage. Lindsay Posner, one of the masters of the English theatre since Death and the Maiden of ’92 (almost 20 years since it was performed—what a scandal) has directed this splendid revival, which runs like a Swiss watch: precisely so, because the first and second parts last exactly one hour, not one minute more, not one minute less. The mise en scene (courtesy of Peter McKintosh) is as simple as it is trenchant. On the right-hand side of the stage mountains of stacked papers, and shelves reaching up to the roof, loaded with books on the verge of toppling over—it’s (you’ve guessed it) Butley’s half. On the left, a bare table and a bookstand with just ten or twelve books—here begins the territory of Joseph Keystone (Martin Hutson), Butley’s young protégé, who has recently joined the department. In the course of this folle journee, Butley—West—is going to try to sabotage two people: the burgeoning relationship of his ex-wife, Ann (Amanda Drew), who wants to marry ‘the most boring man in London’, and Joseph, who has abandoned him and switched allegiance to Reg Nuttall (Paul McGann), an editor, whom Butley equally detests. Complicated? Ah, this is only the beginning. He has also to avoid the constant phone calls of James, the invisible but omnipresent Head of Department, and the visits of students who want tutorials and seminars (he’s not able to avoid the pertinacious Miss Heasman (Emma Hiddlestone), author of ‘Jealousies and Redemptions in A Winter’s Tale’, and the raging Edna Shaft (Penny Downie), a [Byron] specialist and….well, let’s leave it there). With exceptional rhythmic command, aided by a finely-tuned cast, Dominic West reveals all the layers of Butley, increasingly caught in his own trap, until his encounter with Reg, the only rival who is his equal (a savage scene of provocation and immolation, with an increasing sensation of physical danger), which exposes the nakedness of a lonely and terrified heart.

Simon Gray gives him, for a change, a moment of ultimate grandeur and a possible path to salvation: Butley, defeated but whole for once, embraces his loneliness (“I’m too old for these games”), rejects the offered friendship of the young student, Gardner (Cai Brigden), denying himself a repetition of the relation with Joseph. Stupendous trials and tremendous entertainment, which should be shown on a Spanish stage.