Two women sit across a laid table. They reflect back each other’s movements – polishing a wine glass, shifting a napkin. It isn’t clear if its each other they are trying to please, or some unseen presence yet to enter. Enclosed within Anna Reid’s claustrophobic set, which is like the framework of a stripped back gazebo, the women take turns performing the actions one-handed, the other arm twisted up behind their back as if coerced. At the end of the play’s prelude, they perform the Lulu and the Lampshades’ Cups Song (the one made popular in Pitch Perfect and you’ve definitely attempted after a YouTube tutorial and a gin). Every time they mess up, they glance up in as if fear of the repercussions.
Exactly as if fear of repercussions. Exactly as if coerced. Theatre company Open Clasp are committed to producing work about women often unseen, particularly women from the north of England (as a side note, the fact it feels this refreshing to hear such accents from characters with agency in a serious drama is indicative of how little it happens). Catrina McHugh’s Rattle Snake is about two women who find themselves victims of coercive control, at different periods in the spiralling sadistic timeline of one very dangerous man.
Charlotte Bennett’s production is based on extensive research and real-life testimonies on how this little recognised form of abuse strips away a person’s identity, isolates them from their friends and family, and under current law, largely goes unpunished. This is brought into stark reality when the perpetrator (James) of Rattle Snake does indeed at one point find himself in court. How do you evidence the drip, drip of daily undermining and violation? It comes down to a lot of he-said-she-said and he-said that she’s exaggerating, your honour. You know what women are like, I get angry sometimes but I’m a good man. Ask anyone. Anyone but her.
The man remains unseen, with his first wife Suzy (Christina Berriman Dawson) and later girlfriend Jen (Elildah Taman) portraying him at different moments. The actors move seamlessly through the dual parts, with two separate moments often playing out in the same scene. It is testimony to their performances that this is never confusing. For example, in an early scene, both women play out their first date with the abuser – each switching between the charmer and the charmed. You want to shout out “Don’t do it, he’s clearly a smarmy bastard!” as you see each succumb like flies to the proverbial spider. At least real rattle snakes have the courtesy to give you a warning clatter before they attack. McHugh’s drama moves fast. There’s a lot of ground to cover in an hour to give justice to the insidious way a controlling partner can slowly slither in and poison your life.
As a two-hander, Rattle Snake relies on its central performances and they are properly stellar. Taman is particularly disturbing when she steps into James’ shoes, her body seems to pulse with potential violence as she stares Suzy down. Bennett’s direction sees “him” (embodied by either Dawson or Taman) appear to suck the energy from the space, all of the women’s life force pulled into his smug, counterfeit respectability. It is a shame that we only encounter the women after he has sucked them dry; I would have loved to have seen more of who Suzy and Jen were when they were free. But then, realistically, you have encountered Suzy and Jens in life, and you’ve never seen them unrestricted and uninhibited either.
Rattle Snake was originally developed as part of a training programme for frontline police officers in Durham, and with Women’s Aid to raise awareness. UK law was changed in 2015 to make coercive control in relationships a crime.
Rattle Snake is at the Soho Theatre until May 19th. For more details, click here.