Theatre review: Violence and Son

This week I went to see a play called Violence and Son at the Royal Court Theatre. If you have any intention of going to see it, stop reading now. The play dealt with a lot of difficult themes, and it made me think of a lot of stuff, so this is going to be half review/summary of the plot, and half my own thoughts and experiences.

The basic premise is that a 17-year-old boy, Liam, has moved to Wales to live with his estranged father after the death of his mother. Liam is a massive Doctor Who fan (the play begins with him zapping lights with a sonic screwdriver, making me wonder briefly if I’d walked into the wrong play) and is clearly head over heels for his friend Jen, also a huge Doctor Who fan. We begin thinking that she’s into him too, and everything is rosy, but then… she asks him for his advice on her boyfriend, and we see it’s a classic friend zone situation. The script cleverly moves between feeling sorry for Liam, feeling irritated for Jen that she can’t just be a person but has to be a sexual thing, and wondering from Liam’s side how much encouragement he believes he’s been getting. There are a lot of articles written these days about ‘friend zoning,’ classically with men being friend zoned by women although I hear about it the other way around too. Sadly, the truth is that when you like someone, everything they do becomes imbued with special significance, and it’s hard to see through that. I once thought a boy at school MUST fancy me because he lent me a pencil sharpener. I was about ten, but still. And it’s even worse if you’re good friends with someone, because even if they suspect something and try not to encourage it, it’s damn hard to find a line between being friendly but distant enough not to hurt anybody.

Enter Liam’s father Rick, nicknamed Violence because he has a habit of beating people up, although, apparently, not so much recently apart from a guy who felt up his girlfriend. Second interesting theme of the play is sexual harassment. Rick’s girlfriend, Susan, tells a story about a man who stuck his fingers inside her in the middle of a pub. We learn that this is a common occurrence in said local pub, which Jen has “of course” experienced despite only being 18. She explains that it’s difficult to decide what to wear, because jeans mean direct access albeit with the protection of a layer of fabric, while skirts mean men’s hands have to go down and up but, if they get there, there’s no further barrier. Liam is shocked and appalled and apologises on behalf of the male race. I don’t know how common this is in general, the only experience I had of it was in high school when a couple of boys had a habit of walking behind you and putting their hand between your legs, right on the entrance to your vagina (through trousers – thank god for allowing girls to wear trousers at school, which only came in in my home town when I was about eleven). I didn’t complain about it because I didn’t really understand what was going on, I just knew it made me feel violated and ashamed.

Next fun theme was domestic violence, father to son. After a bit of a row, Liam tries to get past his dad and they have a bit of a wrestling match. Liam ends up falling off to the side and hitting his head on the wall. It seems to the audience that his father half-threw him. Rick disappears and Jen has a long conversation with Liam about this violence, and whether this is the first time his dad has hurt him. It emerges that it isn’t, that he’s done it before, and Liam even goads him into it sometimes because his father is sweet and contrite for a little while afterwards. He tells a story about a time he needed stitches, and told the doctors he’d fallen when drunk. Rick and Susan come back in, and Susan talks to Liam about what he thinks happened – it seems that she’s trying to persuade him that he just fell, his father didn’t push him at all. Jen is incredulous until she finds out that the time Liam needed stitches, he actually HAD been drunk and didn’t remember exactly what had happened. Suddenly, as an audience, you’re not sure who to believe. Even though we’ve just seen Liam’s latest fall, they were both off balance. Are we projecting onto what we saw because we’ve heard so much about Rick’s violent reputation? Or is Liam really in danger? The exploration of guilt and contrition is very interesting, particularly Liam’s view point of trying to get his father angry so that he’ll slip over an edge and then fell bad and be kind to his son. Clearly Liam feels he is to blame for these incidents. The discussion of whether his father is hurting him or if there are other explanations for Liam’s injuries is full of blurred lines, but feels like the kind of speech someone would give to try and dissuade someone from running away from a violent partner. They’re always sorry, it’s my fault really, maybe I did just slip and fall… very dangerous discourse.

Jen wants Liam to leave with her anyway but Liam is reluctant because he has nowhere to stay long term. Then Rick flips the situation on his head by announcing that maybe he can’t trust himself not to hit Liam when he’s drunk, and that Liam should get out just in case. Liam is now in a position of having to beg his drunken alcoholic father to keep him in, and pleads with him to stop drinking if he can’t trust himself when he’s wasted (Alcoholic parents: fun theme number 4). It’s only a few months until Liam has to go to university, and he begs Rick to go sober until then. To everyone’s surprise, Rick agrees with gusto, and throws out all the alcohol he can find. Liam and Jen are jubilant. I am deeply sceptical. Sure enough, within about half an hour of getting back from throwing out alcohol, Rick finds a can of beer behind the sofa and opens it up without thinking. He throws it down the sink when he realises what he’s done, but it’s obvious that giving up an addiction is not that easy. This isn’t really explored any further, and the scene when Rick starts drinking again right away is played for laughs, despite the potential consequences.

Rick talks to Liam about Jen. He’s already tried to persuade him earlier that Jen is keen for him based purely on the fact she’s wearing a short skirt. Liam scoffs. Rick advises his son to tell Jen that if she wants to keep seeing him and doing Doctor Who stuff together (they’ve just been to a convention) it can’t just be as friends. Perhaps against his better judgement, Liam issues Jen with this ultimatum. She is not impressed, and rightly so. Again, we have two sides which are shown to us clearly: Liam is sad and perhaps not seeing each other because he has feelings for her would be kinder to them both. But for him to go about it in such a way, essentially saying: date me or piss off, is not fair and is pretty insulting. For Jen, suddenly she’s not allowed to have a friend because of how she looks. She leaves, but returns shortly after because it’s raining solidly outside.

Rick tells Liam when Jen is offstage that Jen returning means she “wants him”. Long story short, Jen has to stay the night because of a lack of taxis and Rick has drunk too much to take her home. Jen and Liam talk and decide they do like each other but Jen should break up with her boyfriend before anything happens. Liam gets sad about his dead mother and Jen asks if he’d like to come and have a cuddle. Liam declines, Jen goes to bed. Rick gives Liam a long speech about how he should “take what’s being offered”, should sleep with Jen and “seal the deal” so she will feel too guilty to go back to her ex. Slowly, Liam gives in. The audience is conflicted. Rick’s arguments make sense if you’ve only got half your brain switched on: she’s staying over at everyone’s insistence and because she has little choice, and without speaking to her, how can Liam know exactly what’s going through her head? Jen seems to be into Liam but how much of that is sympathy for Liam’s situation? Is she wanting to comfort him in the moment or is this a thought-through decision?

The next morning. Liam is on top of the world after sleeping with (and presumably losing his virginity with) Jen. Jen is very quiet. We assume that this is because Liam was not terribly satisfactory in bed (first time, you can’t blame him). Jen explains that she just didn’t think that was what they would be doing last night, she thought they would wait until she’d broken up with her boyfriend. Liam asks her if she didn’t want to sleep with him. She said she just didn’t think it would happen last night. Oft-repeated “It’s fine, though” from Jen. Liam is surprised and saddened and says, “well you should have told me.” The audience is not sure what to think but is perhaps mildly exasperated with Jen, feeling sorry for Liam, until Jen says: “I did say no, though.” Wait – what? Liam is thunderstruck.

When?

When you were pulling my knickers down. I said no, and then no, stop.

I didn’t hear you.

I thought you did – you sort of paused, and then carried on.

Well why didn’t you stop me?

Because I didn’t want to spoil it. We’d had such a lovely day.*

The atmosphere in the theatre, very small and with the stage a circle in the middle with seats all the way round, is deep and intense. I noticed then that a girl in the audience on the far side to my left, who at the beginning of the second half was laughing loudly with her friend, is now sobbing. If you’d ever had any experience of rape, this scene would be traumatising. I found it extremely difficult. I’ve never said no to anyone and been ignored, but I’ve certainly slept with people because it was expected, or because I didn’t want to spoil things, or make a fuss. The other elements of the play come together here, in this fifth and most disturbing theme. We know this is a society where women are seen primarily as sexual objects: Jen wearing a skirt means she fancies Liam, women are periodically abused in a public place with no repercussions, Jen is assumed to be willing to sleep with Liam because she is there. Sex has been cheapened, become something that women are available for as and when, all men have to do is take what is being offered, and if women aren’t up for it, they just shouldn’t be there. Jen is very upset, Liam doesn’t understand. Of course I didn’t hear you, he says, how could you think that I’m like that? “I don’t know what you’re like until you show me,” cries Jen. This is all the experience she has, being treated as though her feelings don’t matter, so why should she be surprised when Liam doesn’t turn out to be any different, despite his anger at the casual harassment in the pub and his ‘constant breaking down of gender norms’ by having a pink toothbrush? Jen asks him to apologise, because she would feel better if she knew he hadn’t meant to do it. “What exactly am I supposed to have done?” asks Liam, coldly. He has checked out of the situation. He doesn’t believe he’s in the wrong. It must be her fault.

The next day, or a few days later. Liam has been receiving messages from Jen’s friends accusing him of rape. Rick and Susan are asking him about it, about whether he forced her. Of course not, says Liam. Are you sure, says Susan. Yes, she said afterward that she said no but I didn’t hear her. Didn’t you, asks Rick. No, of course not… I don’t… I don’t think so. Rick says, “ah, was it like this: she says no once, and you think that’s just what women do, if she meant it, she’d say it again. She says it again and you think, ah, she’s just playing, if she meant it, she’d stop me. She doesn’t stop you, so you carry on. Was it like that?” Maybe, says Liam. Susan is astonished. Liam tries to stand up for himself: but she was in my bed, we were kissing, she had me all riled up, you can’t say no then, can you?

ER, FUCK YES, says Susan.

But that’s not fair! cries Liam.

Susan explains. Imagine you’ve gone into a shop, and you really want to buy this toy car, and you’re really excited about it, and the shopkeeper believes you’re going to buy it, and then when you get to the counter, you suddenly change your mind, and you’re not sure you do want it. But the shopkeeper whips your money out of your hand. Has he robbed you?

By this point the poor girl in my audience is utterly distraught. I’m curled in on myself and hugging my jacket. Everything is tense. Rick steps in, and apologises to Liam: this was all me, son, I persuaded you to do it, I convinced you that she was up for it, this was all me. Liam realises that his whole future might have been turned over because he’d listened to his father and trusted his appalling attitudes towards women. Rick says he’ll “sort it,” and threaten Jen so she won’t go to the police. Susan tells him that’s too much and too horrible and so Rick physically throws her out. Liam is left sobbing in his dad’s arms, hating asking him to do this but not being able to see what else to do. If Jen accuses him of rape, it’s her word against his. And he could go to prison, and that’s his life over. Does he deserve it?

Where’s the blame here? Jen could have been more vocal, but Liam should have been paying more attention. He should, in this deeply confused situation, have TALKED to her about what she wants. Rick should not have got involved. And most of all, there should have been a more respectful attitude towards women and consent in the whole play, as it showed that even with men like Liam who seem to be all about respect, there is still this sense of entitlement sitting underneath.

With this kind of attitude towards women around constantly, it is too easy for men to see women too much as sexual beings. Of course, we are sexual beings, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there are much finer lines than were shown in this play about how to treat women, particularly during sex. It’s a theme I’ve thought about before but this play made more obvious to me, and which I’ll be exploring further in another blog post soon. On the same note, it is easy for women to expect behaviour that makes them a little (or A LOT) uncomfortable and to put up with it because it’s expected, or they feel it’s all they’re going to get. Ladies, stand up for yourselves. You are worth everything. And just because the media treats you like a sexual thing every day of the week (see the blog My Tights Won’t Stay Up and their The Week in Sexist News posts: there’s a weather presenter on some channel who there is a NEWS PIECE about nearly every week, because she’s wearing clothes. Holy shit) doesn’t mean that you can’t tell people when their behaviour makes you feel small and dirty. It can be really little things, like saying something specific in the bedroom that you don’t really like, or someone you only know casually always commenting on your appearance, or men never being able to speak to you without making it flirty and sexual. If it’s making you feel crappy, shut it DOWN. I know it’s easier said than done, but this play made me think very hard about not putting up with any of it. It all feeds into these horribly dangerous attitudes, and this sense that women are not the same as real people, but just around for sex.

*(this is the gist of the dialogue, I don’t have a copy of the script)

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