Writer: Catrina McHugh
Director: Charlotte Bennett
Set Designer: Anna Reid
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Rattle Snake succeeds admirably in its intention of revealing the truth about coercive control in domestic abuse, though at less than an hour it is an undeveloped, if highly involving, piece of theatre.
Open Clasp’s production began life at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, but it is based on a piece commissioned by Durham University and Durham Constabulary and used in the training of front-line police officers. At the time (2015) coercive control in relationships became for the first time a crime in UK law. According to the definition in the programme, coercive control, which may involve no violence as such, “seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self.”
Catrina McHugh’s script cleverly takes the on-stage focus away from the abusive character, James, though he shows up from time to time played (or hinted at) by one of his victims or even having his lines spoken by the two together. In Charlotte Bennett’s precisely controlled production two young women sit opposite each other at a dining table as the audience enters. At first, they seem to act normally, positioning wine glasses or folding napkins, but gradually a pattern emerges of obsessive tidying, with occasional fraught glances over the shoulder.
As the play proper starts, the two women’s lines echo each other, intersect or are spoken in unison. They both have a story of meeting James accidentally, being taken to dinner by him and charmed by his attitude, then finding that he is taking control of their lives, initially, oddly enough, by helplessness and, even, tears.
Soon the stories separate. Suzy (Christina Berriman Dawson) spent 12 years in a relationship with James. She is now, officially, free – the law has been helpful to her – but is still vulnerable, unable to predict the unpredictable. Jen (Eilidh Talman) has known James only for months and is unable to make as clean a break. Though the play ends with the focus on Jen’s success or failure in escaping James, the main story is of Suzy’s 12 years of enduring, opposing or trying to escape emotional blackmail, threats of violence, campaigns of lies, drunken abuse and terror at the effects on the children.
One of the themes of the play is that domestic abuse is as likely to strike the comfortable middle classes as the more obviously disadvantaged and Dawson is particularly adept at suggesting the controlled self-confident woman beneath the tormented victim desperately seeking to be believed. Talman, equally agonised, brings out the ambiguity of her feelings very successfully and is convincingly disturbing in her moments as James.
Anna Reid’s set – table and chairs inside an imprisoning cube – makes its point tellingly: there are no solid walls to this prison, but that doesn’t make the inmates feel free. Script and direction never overstate the case and that makes the problem all the more recognisable.
Runs until 21 October 2017, then plays Soho Theatre, London | Image: Contributed