Without a doubt, Scott James’ Between a Man and a Woman is an ambitious play. Addressing domestic abuse head on, the play spends as much time with the friends and family as the couple in question. Featuring seven actors – two of whom double up in roles – the play shows how many people can be on the periphary of events, but still be powerless or unaware about what’s at stake under their nose.
Tom (Millin Thomas) is married to Polly (Jasmin Gleeson) but despite his assertions that he is ‘happy’, Tom’s behaviour suggests this is not the case. Having an affair with student Siobhan (Roisin Gardner), Tom is emotionally manipulative with both her and his wife. The degree though, that this manifests with Polly is mind-boggling. Using a ‘stick and carrot’ approach, Tom persuades Polly to give up writing – her one creative outlet – and in the process stops her keeping a record of her feelings and their marriage. Had she continued to do so, she could have been another Sylvia Plath (in the best sense) – a person of ‘literary worth’ in her own right, who lays bare the sham of her matrimonial circumstances. Maybe that’s why Tom nips Polly’s aspirations in the bud…
If Tom’s abuse stayed purely at an emotional level, it could have been denied, but the escalation to physical violence provides incontrovertible, damning evidence that alarms Polly’s sister Tammy (Charlotte E Tayler). But Tammy’s efforts to persuade her sister to leave her unhappy marriage are challenged by Polly herself and Chris (Rosie Spivey) – Tammy’s partner, who also works as a counsellor…
In recent years there have been other plays – both mainstream and on the fringe – that have broached this subject with various degrees of success, such as dirty butterfly by debbie tucker green, Michael Honnah’s 102 and Eleanor Fusco’s Our Baby. James’ play is longer than all of these, having a wider focus of the issues at hand – simultaneously widening our understanding as well as the difficulties in finding a solution. The time spent with Polly and Siobhan’s family and social circle show a clear delineation between the confidantes who recognise Tom’s controlling behaviour for what it is and those who are one step removed like Chris who make Tammy question whether her initlal impulses are right.
I have to admit, when Tom shows his pleasure for writing and books, the first thing that came to mind was John Waters’ famous quote: “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t f*** ’em!” Why would anybody stay with anybody who is threatened by th expression of thoughts through writing and books? This, plus Tom’s insistence that Polly should have a baby despite her own misgivings, smacks of Denny in Educating Rita, wanting to keep a pregnant wife at home ‘under his thumb’.
If Tom’s behaviour is hard to stomach, the play forces its audience to consider the long-term effects of physical and sexual abuse, bringing into play Tom’s younger brother Harry (Greg Arundell). The recipient of his father’s ‘advances’, Harry had arguably a harder time than Tom who ‘only’ had to contend with violence. Arundell conveys Harry’s empathetic, if broken, demeanour – recognising in early relationships the darkness within himself and the need to be upfront about his past experiences. Bereft of a similar catharsis, Tom is almost like a tragic Shakespearean figure, compelled to behave in a way that will eventually lead to his downfall.
While Polly’s behaviour is ‘frustrating’ in the sense that she’s always defending the man who is actually making her clinically depressed, Gleeson does an excellent job portraying a woman who is ‘loyal to a fault’ – internalising Tom’s criticisms of her and compelled to ‘stand by her man’ in public. And while Chris appears to be too far removed to recognise the precariousness of Polly’s situation, the characters of Tammy, Shelly and Anna naturally elicit the audience’s identification with them in their efforts to save their sisters and friend.
So what does Between a Man and a Woman have to say to us about the victims and perpetrators of abuse? Communication (and the lack of…) is responsible for most developments in relationships and ways of thinking. While those who stay with abusive partners may do so out of fear or because anxiety and depression have clouded their thinking, it’s important for those ‘on the sidelines’ to keep the channel of communications open so that ‘when the penny drops’, the abused will know immedately who they can turn to.
In life, abuse isn’t an isolated occurence between a man and a woman. Its toxicity bleeds through into surrounding relationships. But just as respect is an attitude that’s expressed in all walks of life, the same can be said for maltreatment in alleged close relationships. Especially in this age of transparency, the truth will come out.
© Michael Davis 2017
Between A Man And A Woman runs at the Etcetera Theatre until 5th November.