As drips fall from the cavernous ceiling in Underbelly Big Belly, I am reminded of outstanding solo performances I’ve seen in this space: Millie Thomas’s Dust, Monica Dolan’s The B*EASTS. Maddie Rice delivers a performance to match theirs in Pickle Jar, in an understated monologue about the implications of rape culture.
Rice’s central character is a teacher, known only as Miss. Enthusiastic, vulnerable, becardiganed, anxious. She obviously loves her students, even though they gently mock her. She worries how to keep them safe. She reserves a special, fond irritation for Carly Hancock, cheeky, often in trouble, vulnerable. ‘You know that you can talk to me about boys’, Miss offers, then sings a song about the importance of wearing a condom, making Carly cringe. In trying to be down with the kids, did Miss overlook something? Not negligence but… Could she have prevented what happened? Where does Miss’s responsibility as a teacher end?
Rice has a gift for deftly sketching comic characters, from her Irish flatmate Máiréad, who has apparently celebrated her 21st birthday every year she’s known her, to the school counsellor who keeps trying to get her to talk about her feelings even though she insists she’s fine. Rice gleefully represents the counsellor getting her ponytail stuck in a train door. There is another hilarious moment when Miss invites her class to choreograph a dance representing ‘feminism and teamwork’. The resulting dance is energetically sexual. If this is how we teach girls to be ‘sexy’, is it any wonder when…? Can a teacher protect her girls from…?
Sentences tail off. Hints are seeded. Something terrible has happened. After a slow start, the monologue gradually gathers momentum to a sickening climax. What can be worse for a teacher than the death of a student? Finding out the circumstances of that death and believing that you could have done something to prevent it.
Miss tells her about her last boyfriend and how she was just about to tell him she loved him when he rang to tell her he had chlamydia. She tells us about Mr Ellis, the design technology teacher, who introduces himself as a divorcee who is bad at dancing but becomes a far more predatory presence. In rape culture, Pickle Jar seems to be saying, everything is relevant. You always have to be on your guard. Yet, Miss discovers the irony of her attempts to educate her girls about ‘stranger danger’ is that the perpetrator of violence against women is most likely to be someone they know.
Pickle Jar entangles some issues that could be usefully unpicked. I’m not sure I agree with all its implications. Nonetheless, Rice gives a moving performance of grief and misplaced guilt.
Pickle Jar is on at Underbelly Cowgate until 26 August. Click here for more information.