Rebecca Watson’s debut novel little scratch has been widely celebrated as vivid, immediate, and experimental. The text itself is unconventionally set and visually enacts the protagonist’s streams of consciousness as she toils through one crushingly banal day at work: repeating, refracting and often separating into different wavelengths along the page in a portrayal of living with trauma from sexual assault, office hierarchies and the burden of wage labour.
Such high admiration for the work is apparent in Miriam Battye’s adaptation and Katie Mitchell’s direction. Indeed, in an interview with Watson, Greg Ripley-Duggan suggests it was Mitchell who initially brought forward the idea for a stage version. And so little scratch neither surpasses its source nor does it interrogate it, acting instead as a victory lap for the original piece.
There’s a striking fidelity in Battye’s adaptation, using Watson’s text as the script for the four performers (with some minor additions and omissions). Standing stationary in front of a line of microphones, the performers polyphonically voice the narrator’s thoughts, Whatsapps and conversation — journeying rhythmically through the day separately, together — indicating the multilinearity and multiplicity within. Lighting states are minimal with the actors each standing beneath a hanging ceiling light; only a slow rise and slow fade evokes the passing day.
What results is a theatrical event that’s akin to watching the recording of an audioplay. little scratch is heavily aural, relying on the actors and the sound design to mirror the visual nature of the text. Beside each actor is a table with a few props (a big brush, a glass of water) to reproduce sounds of teeth-brushing and soup-slurping in a Foley-esque way. The rest of the soundscape is stunningly created by Melanie Wilson, whose design is complex, meticulous and seamless. Wilson’s sound score acts as the main dynamic element to this otherwise unchanging production, and successfully chisels out the dramatic beats of the text while complementing and highlighting the voices of the performers. If anything, the static nature of the visuals almost limits Wilson’s ability to go further in enriching the sound world; if this little scratch were indeed an audioplay the voices of the actors could themselves shift and swerve through the field of sound, ping-ponging and branching like thoughts often do.
What’s more, transposing the novel into an aural space churns up other implications. The protagonist’s thoughts are quick, mercurial, and, critically, differ from what she speaks aloud. Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá, Eleanor Henderson, Eve Ponsonby, Ragevan Vasan work so well collaboratively to find a unified flow and highlight the sparse moments of humour in Watson’s text, and each are gifted performers in their own right. But their job is a very complicated one — to vocalize internalized thoughts — and Mitchell doesn’t necessarily work to acknowledge that complication within Battye’s adaptation. What is lost sometimes is the actual monotony of the thoughts themselves (even if they are profound, or harrowing ones), because they are being imbued with emotion and meaning in a way that betrays them. Mitchell does however note the difference between reading the book (and the ability to go backwards), and the theatrical medium, and so underlines the forward momentum of time and how it relates to the working day: sometimes suffocating, mind-numbing, other times exhilarating.
So while the stage adaptation is a faithful performance of Watson’s novel, it’s less clear whether it works as a theatrical piece in its own right. At times, little scratch at the Hampstead feels hampered by the desire to honour its source text. At the same time, would it be worth doing a more radical theatrical, divergent version of the book? I’m not so sure. Like the original, this adaptation gives the appearance of experimentalism within the medium, but actually in its substance is rooted in heavily conventional practices. In a Guardian review of the book, Alex Clark notes that Watson’s little scratch is ‘not to everyone’s taste’, and, as such a faithful adaptation, the same can be said for this production.
little scratch is on at Hampstead Theatre till 11th December. More info here.