Writer: Louise O’Neill
Adaption: Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn
Director: Annabel Comyn
Witnessing Asking For itis a small act of intervention in the hypocrisy and victim-blaming of social and legal rape culture, but it is an important one. This liquid, shifting adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s powerful novel replicates the disintegration of self when shame and trauma meet in a society that values the potential career of its young men so much that its women become markers in their power games. It’s hard to watch. It’s necessary to see.
Emma (played with commitment by Lauren Coe) is herself a shifting narrative, like all eighteen-year-olds. She longs for escape from her small town, bullies her friends, including another victim of their classmates’ sexual violence (Venetia Bowe’s Zoe) and is bullied by her mother (in a performance that gives surprising nuance to the character by Ali White). She and her friends are bursting with an exuberance that turns to sniping and provocations to dare more and riskier behaviour in the name of ‘a great sesh’, or being able to ‘take a joke’. We know, in the audience, where this is leading; the skill of McHugh and Comyn’s script and Comyn’s direction is such that we become hyper-aware of signals in the same way that victims of sexual violence often do: we are constantly afraid that the next scene will be ‘it’.
When ‘It’ comes, the shifting patterns of light (designed by Sinead McKenna) in the rippling Perspex set (Paul O’Mahony) draw our eyes from one vaguely grasped moment to the next, mirroring Emma’s increasing perceptual alteration. The aftermath, images of a young woman’s unconscious body on social media, are given sensitively (projection design by Jack Phelan consistently evoking timelessness and immediacy) with Emma’s words driving home the shattering impact of the men’s arrogance in documenting the gang rape. “She is a thing”, she says, losing herself.
The second half closes in on her, literally (as the set evokes kitchen-sink drama) and figuratively, as her family wrestles with their own denial, grief, and guilt. Frank McCusker’s Dad (who gives a moment of affective release that ripples through the audience) and Paul Mescal’s Bryan, Emma’s supportive brother, give insight into the varied responses of society to a victim while keeping a raw intimacy with Emma’s individual case. Here we lose more and more of Emma’s voice as she appears facing away, or almost hidden in shadows.
The people who need to see Asking For Itare likely not the people sitting in the theatre. Its shifting images replicate for the audience the instability that causes so much dread in victims of sexual violence – who do you become when your local sports stars gang rape you, humiliate you and are not held to account? Where have you gone, and would you want to come back even if you could? The people who need to feel that dread, to learn that women are not markers in a power game or sexual toys, are probably not the people who attend plays at the Abbey. But if witnessingAsking For Itmakes us return to the every day and work to change these attitudes in our families, in our local GAA or rugby clubs, in our legislation, then attending this play will truly be a life-changing intervention for young people in the future.
Produced by Landmark Productions and The Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre and Cork Midsummer Festival.
Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Ros Kavanagh