Content warning: references to sexual assault and minor spoilers
#Metoo – these few letters are almost too small to encompass such a spectrum of experiences and pain. But this two-woman show, a work in progress written by investigative journalist Lucinda Borrell, offers an original and thought-provoking exploration of this by spotlighting the women in the outskirts of the media coverage.
The performance is set over one night’s dinner sitting (though food isn’t really touched) shared by Beth, a celebrity wife of a convicted serial sex offender who refuses to believe his guilt, and Lizzy, the journalist who broke the story. Thing is, they used to be best friends. Now, they sit in a restaurant they used to regularly frequent, each trying to cope with the fallout. Although there is only a kitsch-clothed table between them, their differing perspectives mean they may as well be a thousand miles apart.
“Original and thought-provoking”
The play is relatively static, and so relies heavily on the relationship built between the characters. And the two women provide interesting foils to each other. Beth: sunglass-wearing, family-orientated, casually boastful about her fashionable lifestyle – the type of woman (who I’m sure many of us have come across) who would cancel her plans with friends at the last minute, then post on her Instagram ‘night in with this one’ – is an easy target to find exasperating. In contrast, Lizzy cuts a sharper shape – cynical, job-focused, chronically single (as Beth points out multiple times) and dedicated to doing the right thing despite personal cost.
It’s easy to see who the audience is supposed to relate to more. The two women are similar in age, physical appearance and in energy, but could not be more different in personality and outlook. Their relationship, and the power struggle within it, remains central throughout the performance, and as it goes on I found myself more and more invested in it. Watching them go from sharing stories of past mad nights out (almost despite themselves) to screaming at each other across their battle lines, the two actors clearly portray the connection the friends have with each-other which is continually pitched against the uncrossable chasm that exists between them.
The character of Beth is brilliantly, horrifically frustrating in her role as a borderline fanatical wife, point-blank refusing to believe that the man she married is capable of committing such terrible acts. When Lizzy ultimately loses her temper and shouts at her to get through her thick skull, she really does speak for the audience as a whole. In contrast, Lizzy is her opposite: a driven, self-dependent journalist who, despite all her tactics, can’t get her friend to accept the truth – honestly, I wanted to hear more about this character.
‘The dialogue is combative and circular”
The dialogue is combative and circular, as they return to the ‘he did it’, ‘no he didn’t’ argument time and time again. This effect, like banging your head against a brick wall, points towards a huge problem our society faces right now – the horrific, disgusting cruelty of sexual assault, and the frequency of its occurrence, and the secondary, insidious cruelty of those who refuse to believe the victims. Beth goes through all the excuses we see online and in the media: he’s a good father/husband so he can’t have done this. He’s famous so these women are lying for attention. What she in fact reveals, is how women can betray other women, shining a light onto the epidemic of disbelieving women who have been assaulted while shining a light on the lies people tell to themselves. And while you feel some sympathy for the wife – clearly financially dependent and scared of life away from her husband and a nuclear family – this is limited by her selfishness. Although her character lacked nuance, making it all too easy to hate her, her actions show that self-service and plain old fear are enough motivation sometimes to make people act in terrible ways.
The play also benefits from its journalist scriptwriter (Lucinda Borrell), as the press plays a divisive role. For Lizzy, it’s a catalyst for truth telling for women whose voices have been silenced. However, it is one that comes at a price, as she reveals through the online death threats she had received – a sad reality for too many in the #MeToo movement. In Beth’s eyes, however, the press are ‘scum’. Borrell takes a magnifying glass to, if only briefly, the ethics of the press around high profile cases. Interest in the wellbeing of individuals falls to the side in the face of a good story, as the wife details a press pack camping outside her house trying to get pictures of her children. Although the play would have benefited from doing the same as the press and focusing more on the children in this scenario – how do you tell young kids that their dad is a rapist? Ultimately, the press are a tool – one which is necessary, but needs to be careful who it sweeps up in the media storm.
“Expressions of lived pain, cut through the performance and sat heavy in my stomach”
Breaking up the action, as a consistent heartbeat throughout the performance, are real life testimonials from victims read by the actresses at a lectern to the side of the stage. These visceral statements, read with deadpan expressions (and over some pretty out-of-place opera music), cut through the performance and sat heavy in my stomach as I watched. The brutal reality serves as a reminder of the real cost of what the women are arguing. It gestures towards the bravery of those who come forward, and the need to protect those who do – as one statement asks “Telling you will help won’t it?”. The tragedy is, in the world of the play (and indeed our own), there is still a question mark over this.
However, it is here that I have some points to raise. The subject of sexual assault is not an easy one to write about or perform, and the play skirts around the topic in the beginning before diving in head first. But one issue I had with it was that, in a performance about the human impact of sexual assault, the stories, voices and even names of the victims of Beth’s husband are never really discussed. The third character in the play is the husband (Charlie) who, despite his absence, is a shadowy presence in the stories the two ex-friends tell. This does make sense in the premise of the show; in a play about how common it is for victims to not be believed, and how you react when you find out that the person you love is capable of terrible things. However, while Charlie is examined and re-examined, the stories of the women he assaulted were largely left to one side – their voices were missing from this debate. Even with the highly impactful testimonials being shared throughout, these could have been woven in better to feel like less of an add-on.
While this performance makes an important point, putting into the spotlight the fact that men who commit these acts cannot be redeemed by any amount of goodness in their past, it risks falling into the trap of backgrounding the women it effects who have to keep living their lives, while those on the fringes of events have the luxury of debating the truth. It’s a balance anyone dealing with this topic has to deal with, and one which needs a little finessing in this performance.
However, there is no right way of telling experiences or representing pain. Who even has the right to tell the victims’ stories? It’s a tough line to walk. And with only 6% of rapists being convicted, focusing on the ridiculousness of those who refuse to believe the victims is incredibly necessary.
Ultimately, this work in progress is powerful, character-driven and has an important story to tell, but it needs make sure to never forget the violence of the human cost behind the headlines.
Us Two is running at The Space until 25th January. More information can be found here.