Masterpieces – Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Sarah Daniels

Director: Melissa Dunne

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Sarah Daniels’ 1983 play Masterpieces, which looked at the effect of pornography on society and its role in perpetuating men’s violent control over women, might be thought to have dated in a world where high-speed broadband has made the availability of porn so much more widespread than in the days of top-shelf magazines and seedy city centre theatres. Instead, it has lost none of its bite, and its warnings remain as sadly relevant as ever.

Daniels paints her thesis with a broad brush: men are boorish misogynists who will take any opportunity to assume that women are their sexual playthings. Yet the individual strokes are vivid enough to draw one into her argument.

Fundamental to this is the character of Rowena (Olivia Darnley), whom we first meet at an uncomfortable dinner conversation where the men exchange rape jokes while their wives either object in vain, or acquiesce to their husbands.

It is an uncomfortable conversation on which to eavesdrop. But in the next scene, we flash forward to a Rowena who is being charged with murder – and over the next two hours, we are presented with a route to that scene that does not so much suggest a link between pornography and violence as insist upon it.

Along the way, several characters are brought into focus. Tessie Orange-Turner excels in two distinct roles: first as Rowena’s childhood friend Yvonne, now a disillusioned teacher who must contend with boys brandishing adult magazines in her classroom, and whose evidence ensures that one of her pupils is convicted of a rape charge he would otherwise have escaped.

Orange-Turner also plays Hilary, a single mother who tries to come off the game through an office job that Rowena arranges for her through Yvonne’s husband Ron (Rob Ostlere). But by taking the job, and accepting a lift home from her employer, she finds herself attacked by a man who assumes that he is entitled to sex in return.

As Rowena starts to become obsessed with what might cause her husband and other men to consume pornography, she herself falls into a violent reaction after watching an infamous “snuff” film in which a woman is killed on screen. Throughout, the men she encounters structure their analysis of her around assumptions of sexuality that assume men: even her psychological assessment assumes that her wearing a skirt is some from of statement of availability.

And at a simplistic level, Masterpieces is a little too straightforward: no man is able to help himself, all assume that they are entitled to sex without any consideration for the need for mutual consent. And yet, the writing is so sharp, the characters so defined, the actors’ portrayals so engaging that it is impossible not to be swept up by Daniels’s premise.

Verity Quinn’s stark set design surround an adaptable space with walls comprised of the sort of thick, transparent curtains that one might see in an abattoir. The allusion to butchery is clear; and through them, walls made of Playboy magazine covers can be seen, out of focus but ever present.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, with women finally feeling they are able to speak out about harassment and violence they have experienced, it is clear that little has changed in 35 years. The methods and delivery of pornography may have changed, but not for the better. One wishes that Masterpieces could have been consigned to history as a play of its time: instead, it is sickeningly relevant.

Continues until 19 May | Image: Bill Prentice

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