Taking on the subject of domestic coercion, Rattlesnake says something new from an unexpected direction.
It’s been ages since I last saw them, but it’s about time I acknowledged the success of Open Clasp Theatre Company, one of the leading theatre companies writing stories by women about women. That scores no bonus points here though – my sole interest is whether their stories are any good, where there’s good reasons to think so. I never managed to catch the smash hit Key Change, but I did see The Space Between Us four years ago, and whilst some bits of the story didn’t make sense, the thing that really impressed me was the characterisation: four outsiders (three immigrants and one traveller) depicted incredibly convincingly based on painstaking work interviewing real women. Now, in a co-production with Live Theatre, they take on the subject of domestic abuse, but not domestic violence, as is portrayed so often, but coercive control.
The distinction between violence and control is important. It is only recently that society has started wising up to the psychological element of domestic abuse. It’s easy to say “Why don’t you just leave your partner?”, and yes, for anyone in a sound state of mind that’s an easy thing to say, but that’s precisely the tactic of the abusers: to use fear, humiliation or any other tactics to make the victim see staying as the less bad option. Even if staying means putting up with more violence. But here, there’s no violence, just the mind games, and that can also be devastating. The law started to catch up in 2015 when coercive control was made a crime.
That law change is in fact the origin of the play. Originally it was created as a Police training exercise, it’s the story of two women. Both tell similar stories of meeting a wonderful man. It is, in fact, the same man. For Suzy (Christina Berriman Dawson), this in the past and she’s been to hell and back. For Jen (Eilidh Talman), the nightmare is only just starting. Open Clasp were a natural choice to take this on with the excellent track record in getting plays out of real stories, and writer/director Catrina McHugh does not disappoint here, delivering a chillingly convincing story.
There was one area where I felt there was a missed opportunity. There’s no shortage of plays cataloguing all the bad things that happen in abusive relationships – but yeah, we get it, domestic violence is bad. What we hear very little of is why. We may never fully understand what makes abusers the way they are, but we could understand a lot more about what stops victims leaving when the alarm bells should be ringing. There was potential for a play about coercive control to explore this – if you take away the violence, the other tactics used by abusers become clearer to see. However, in this story, the abuser might not be using violence, but he relies very heavily on threats of violence. As such, the play does end up with a lot of similarities to other domestic abuse stories, and whilst there’s no denying the horrors of a relationship based on threatened violence rather than actual violence, this did overshadow a story waiting to be told over the psychological elements other than fear of violence.
However, Rattlesnake does bring something new to say from an unexpected direction. As mentioned, this started as a Police training exercise, and that has an important effect. In the second half of the play, when the abused wife finally starts seeking help, people do come to help, dedicated professionals with every intention of putting a stop to it. Nonetheless, the justice system still fails too many times, and not big things such as corrupt police officers and judges conspiring to brush the whole thing aside, but little things that are exploited ruthlessly. Cracks in the justice system erupts into open fissures; stupid assumptions such the guy looking too respectable to be a wife-beater have devastating consequences. The abuser may well have got away with it had he not ended up incriminating himself.
In a Police Training exercise, the discussion that followed would ask what went wrong. There’s already enough excuses to fob off the authorities when there’s bruises; when there’s no violence, detecting the crime gets even harder. Still we must ask: what could have stopped the misery sooner, what could have stopped him moving on to the next victim? But of course this discussion has a place beyond Police training rooms. Open Clasp’s motto is to change the world one play at a time, and that’s certainly what they’re doing here. Not by giving easy answers – it would be naive to think there was one, with very few convictions nearly two years after the change in the law. But to find the right answers, you need to ask the right questions. And that is the thing that Rattlesnake is to be commended for.