Beneath the railway arches of Waterloo, The Vaults provide the perfect subterranean lair for Jodi Gray’s supernatural monologue Big Bad. Though the temperatures outside may be sub-zero, the heat of ‘The Pit’ envelops you like wolf breath on the back of your neck. Even the rumble of trains overhead, so often a distraction in Vault Festival shows, becomes an integral part of the piece. Susi, the protagonist, tells us she was born in the same year as the London Underground. She also tells us she runs a dog grooming business.
At the beginning, I am worried. A woman, in a straitjacket-waistcoat-thing and bloodstained leggings, is chained to the wall. She can walk up and down the chain, pinioned between two walls of her prison. Every so often, she convulses as the lights flash, as if tortured with electric shocks. The darkness between scenes becomes another torture technique. The aesthetic seems a bit ‘chains and whips excite me’. I am uncomfortable about the prospect of watching a woman being dramaturgically tortured for an hour. However, not only is the stage image justified by the plot, but also the initial audience discomfort seems to be intentional. As Susi’s monologue addresses her captors, the audience is cast as a manifestation of the male gaze.
Big Bad is a masterclass in storytelling. Writer Gray and director Deirdre McLaughlin pace the monologue perfectly: establishing the character’s humanity, doubling back, the creep of realisation, the twist. It is surprisingly difficult to review a monologue; so much of its effect depends on how it unravels its skein of plot in front of an audience. But I can’t really write about Big Bad without telling you a bit of what happens. You might have worked it out from the title. Who’s afraid of the big bad…?
Susi is a man-eater. Particularly when it’s her time of the month. I do not mean these things metaphorically. Susi is a werewolf.
Arabella Gibbins commands the stage as Susi. She delivers her lines with humour and (surprising) humanity, staring down the audience. She starts conversationally, Gray’s darkly humorous writing stretching relatability to breaking point: “You know when you’re escorted by a policewoman you’re your place of work in handcuffs? Naked. Covered in blood. Someone else’s blood. So embarrassing – handcuffs.”
Beneath the protective layer of bolshiness, there is a deep seam of vulnerability to Gibbins’ portrayal of Susi. She has human as well as animal desires. She gets lonely. She enjoys going to the pub with her friend. She might want a baby. Towards the end of the play, Gibbins almost seems to be transforming, as if fur were prickling beneath her skin and at the ends of her fingers (Wolf costumes are avoided, except for the fetching ears sported by the production team). Gray writes subtly animal inflections into the language, summoning an immediate, instinctual way of apprehending the world.
There are more sinister elements too. It is suggested that Susi’s transformation is the result of sexual violence. Susi wonders what her unseen captors will do to her – whether they plan to mount her or put her on display, or breed her for pups. The play gestures towards a long history of ‘monstrous’ femininity being displayed as spectacle, but never quite goes there.
At the end of the play, in a brilliant reversal of power, Susi takes the chains and the straitjacket thing off. She is in control, as she has been in control of the story throughout. Has she been in control the whole time? Has she just been toying with us because she wants a captive audience?
Big Bad was at Vault Festival until March 18th. For more details, click here.