Can I just caveat the following with mentioning that I really don’t like doing this? I really don’t like being the writer of negative reviews. I don’t know if over the years I’ve built up a reputation as a force of unconstructive criticism – no doubt somewhat linked to my annual female playwrights’ lists – but I didn’t sign up for this. I started reviewing theatre because I loved it, not because I wanted to tear it down. Only, it seems, the more theatre you see, the more problems you can find.
Not that it surprises me that the Orange Tree’s revival of Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair received such glowing reviews on its opening last week. It is supremely well executed. Its cast is excellent and the direction from Richard Twyman is taut, building up the tension in this thriller-satire to the point where you’re almost gasping out loud.
Only I hated this. I hated it. It cut me to the core. By the finale I was stone cold and sickened. Only, for me to explain this, there will be spoilers. If you don’t want any of this production spoilt for you, please stop reading and go see the show, make up your own mind, then come back.
Let’s get back to it…
This play has our amorality and greed in its sights. The plot is centred around the sale of a house. A very nice house, in fact. Clair (Lizzy Watts), the estate agent, values it at about £700k. Only Liz (Hara Yannas) and Mike (Tom Mothersdale) who own the house think that’s very much on the low side. Not that they want to be seen as grasping or anything as unseemly as that, oh no.
And so we follow them and their long-suffering estate agent as they push their asking price up and up until they fall under the charms of James (Michael Gould) a rich potential cash-buyer, who convinces Liz and Mike to gazump their initial purchaser for his more lucrative offer. Only, of course, James is not entirely what he claims to be….
Had this satire held at this, with its interesting sub plot observations on the corruption that capitalism brings to Mike and Liz’s moral compass and upper middle-class lives, I probably would have found much to admire. Only, Martin Crimp also weaved in a sinister sub-plot that involves James’s seduction and murder of the estate agent, Liz. Come the play’s finale, the platformed stage has been stripped back to reveal mounds of earth under the patio of the house at the centre of the squabbles – the inference that Liz’s body was buried there by her murderer.
Now… Look. I just can’t take this anymore. I really can’t. Theatre, I beg of you, please stop killing women. Please stop putting the sexual abuse of women – their rape, assault and victimisation – as a plot point in your productions, I beg of you. If culture is the sea we all swim in – and I truly believe it is – then representation is critical. The impact of ongoing violence to women on stage is causing untold damage, not least to my mental well-being.
I don’t believe that it was a coincidence that Martin Crimp wrote this play just months after the murder of estate agent Suzy Lamplugh in the 1980s, though I appreciate that it was a gruesome coincidence that news of new digging in the search for Suzy’s body came on the day of this production’s press night. But just because it happens in reality, doesn’t mean we need to see it always on stage.
Just as black communities are rightly and understandably tired of stories about slavery and depiction of themselves as enslaved people, so I am tired and increasingly angry about the persistent depiction of violence against women on stage.
There will be creatives who argue there are right ways and wrong ways to stage violence against women – I am not intending to get into this debate here – but I will point out that using the murder of a woman as a necessary evil in a satire is worse, especially when there I felt it was not needed. It was a gruesome piece of extra – a woman’s death at the hands of a man reduced to a gratuitous extra.
The only comparison I can think of recently where such depiction was even more inappropriate was Raving at Hampstead a couple of years ago when the assault of a young woman was used as outright comedic plot point.
I railed against that and I am railing against it here now. I thought I’d had my fill of dramatized violence against women this year with the rape of queens in the Almeida’s Mary Stuart and I’ve been trying my best to avoid shows with it all year.
So, theatres, I ask you kindly, if you are programming shows that have the murder or assault of women in them you’ve really got to ask yourself what the hell you are doing. You need to really take a long hard look at yourselves and discuss, is this necessary? Are we handling this with appropriate caution and context? How does this make women look and feel?
I want to be supportive, not least to a theatre and industry that has a special place in my heart so, simply, theatre, please stop killing us.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to December 1.
Tickets from £25 (concessions available)
All production photos by The Other Richard.