Near the start of small scratch there is a cry: “What will come sooner? Tell him or write to him?” The anonymous protagonist, a writer who struggles to exist after being raped by her boss, realizes that she can’t go on with her life the way she does without telling someone what happened to her. Seeking to maintain the status quo, another internal voice tells her she must do it. Another voice beyond these, in a place where life rubs abrasively against the subconscious, knows it won’t.
The script for playwright Miriam Battye’s play is a close adaptation of novelist Rebecca Watson’s experimental and award-winning novel of the same name, released in 2020. Written entirely from the protagonist’s point of view, the novel resembles a visual poem , text stacked in columns printed side by side on the page. The effect is that the words build a prison in which the protagonist and the readers are trapped simultaneously expressing how we experience life as present, past and future with numerous internal comments and interrupting flashes of PTSD. The irony for the writer’s protagonist, too, is that words can’t help him here – only the literal scratching of his body can.
In this production under the direction of Katie Mitchell, this almost trapped syndrome effect is transferred into a 4D audio experience via four actors representing the protagonist’s many voices speaking simultaneously into microphones and occupying multiple psychological spaces. The protagonist does not have a physical body, nor any of the other characters.
This is where the power lies, as we are forced to focus on the witty, comedic descriptions of the daily struggle to get to work during rush hour, which steadily and horribly turns into a detailed examination of how rape and the resulting PTSD work out. In response, the protagonist chooses to exert enormous control over her bodily functions, to practice a form of self-harm by scratching herself, desperate to maintain a sense of control over her body in any way possible. Not knowing if she should say “My him”, her boyfriend, she avoids the word rape.
The production choices Mitchell made seem at first glance disappointing until we realize it’s because she doesn’t want us to focus on the physicality of the protagonist at the expense of her experience. The male rapist or the patriarchy is also not too referenced. The experience of trauma is felt by the ears as an aggression, which shakes rhythmically in points. Mitchell also plays with the idea of artistic control – the protagonist doesn’t have one, suffering from writer’s block. The fact that the actors are their own noise artists somehow gives the impression of restoring a certain integrity and authorship to the protagonist.
It’s an intense but detached tale of how rape invades and plagues every aspect of a person’s life and challenges you not to turn away from it.