There are two sides to every story. His, and hers. Looking on a marriage from the outside, who can say truly how it functions, how it flails? Only the people inside of it can. And each of them will tell that their own way.
There are two sides to every story, and so Suzy Storck has two narrators. Him, and her. They sit at the edges of the stage and gaze at Suzy, and her husband, Hans-Vassily Kreuz, not impassive, not involved; they stride across the stage and prompt her to remember. With facility they become part of the force inexorably oppressing her; but their regard for her isn’t unsympathetic. It’s just… what can they do? What happened, happened. What happens, happens. All they can do is tell the story.
Aristotle believed that theatre generated catharsis: by participating vicariously in a tragic act staged, an audience member could experience a personal transformation without having to undergo that tragic experience themselves. I used to accept this unquestioningly, until feminist academic Geraldine Harris pointed out that Aristotle also believed that the womb moves around inside the body. It’s now quite hard to take him seriously.
Suzy Storck has locked up her children. This is what I know of the play when I ask to review it. I have two children, aged eight and ten. I am interested in stories of women who struggle with motherhood. Stories of women – as it also says of Suzy Storck in the copy – who feel they “never chose any of this”. I come to Suzy Storck looking for catharsis.
It doesn’t occur to me until later that to come at all was masochistic.
Given the choice, Suzy Storck would not have had children. The problem of her life is that at no point is she given a choice.
No, that’s not true. Before she married, she was able to choose where to work: between the poultry department, sportswear, and nappies. I can feel the cruelty of the narrators when they say that “a child’s potential is very quickly obvious. … It’s quickly obvious whether you’ll be a secretary, a chief production manager, a human resources director, in poultry, sportswear or nappies.” It is the cruelty of society – not the playwright, Magali Mougel, nor her obdurate director here, Jean-Pierre Baro, both of whom double-dare their audience to laugh at the choices available to a woman of Suzy Storck’s socio-economic status, and in that laughter reveal their ugliness. Suzy Storck’s choice here is genuine and taken up gratefully, because autonomy for such a woman is limited. Empowerment is limited. She is not a woman feminism has reached.
I am standing on the bus with my mother. I have chosen, with misgivings, to have children. In my twenties I knew I wanted children one day. On turning 30, I thought: not yet. I am standing on a bus with my mother and my first baby in her pram. I am 31 or maybe just turned 32. I am telling my mother feminism has failed me.
Feminism has failed me because it can’t wake up in the night to feed the baby. Feminsm has failed me because it can’t make the baby stop screaming and start sleeping. Feminism has failed me because it has told me I can have everything, but hasn’t explained how, or admitted the ways in which that’s a lie – a lie because having it all is a lie, a capitalist trick destroying us, destroying our habitat. Feminism has failed me because it hasn’t stopped me feeling like a cow, or feeling belittled by midwives who insist that breastfeeding doesn’t hurt when for me it does, or feeling a tight knot of something I can’t name inside my inchoate love for this helpless creature. It’s not until I read Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution that I realise it’s not all feminism. Just the feminism of a twentysomething who hadn’t yet had children.
The natural world in Suzy Storck is an oppressive, savage thing. Cecile Tremolieres’ design reflects this stealthily: the walls of the room are papered in lush green leaves, but it’s too much, a jungle, overbearing. On a small television screen a creepy image of black glistening flies. A window, mottled, almost mouldy, with leaf-shadow, behind it the light just too bright. The narrators talk of the heat, the sun that refuses to set, the sound of the buzzing radio like “a decomposing corpse seething with life”. And Suzy Storck remembers the dog that shat outside the garage, the stink of the sheep in her parents’ meadow, the feeling of her husband fucking her, the crushing weight of his body as he’s making her pregnant. To be pregnant, we’re told, women are told, is the most natural thing in the world. I have friends who have felt this. I wish them well. I wished, when I was, that I was one of them.
All the ambivalence of pregnancy, of breastfeeding, of childrearing, is compacted into this oppressive, savage play. Mougel is fearless, unrelenting: she turns up the heat and lets it blister the skin of her characters until the emotion heaving beneath is revealed. As Suzy Storck herself, Caoilfhionn Dunne is almost unbearably febrile: like Eileen Walsh, or Kate O’Flynn, she is unafraid to show rawness, to be bruised and bloodied and flayed. Dunne holds Suzy Storck at the precipiece of a cliff, and that roaring sound could be a morass of flies or it could be her brain or it could be a tempestuous wind, pushing, pushing her over the edge.
Take some responsibility, Madame Storck tells her. Think about those poor women who can’t have children, Madame Storck tells her. A spot of post-natal depression, Madame Storck tells her.
What Mougel puts on stage isn’t post-natal depression but the systematic abuse of a woman’s body by a society altogether too ready to define what is natural, what is moral, what is right for that body to do. A society that punishes women if they have too many children and if they have not enough, a society that demands women with children work and scorns them when they do, a society that romanticises motherhood and holds it to ransom. A society obscenely resistant to change.
Suzy Storck lives in a condition of violence. A condition her mother and husband would call marriage. Theirs is the violence of the cutting remark and the expectation that she will fail, whatever she sets her hand to, the belief that she is always overreaching herself, that she is incapable of the simplest things. And what she experiences in domestic settings is repeated in the world. When she goes for a job interview, she can barely get a word out, so ready are her interviewers to interrupt her. Tell us about yourself, they say, but aren’t actually interested in the answer. The answer is: I don’t want children. The answer is: I want to make something else, maybe something with fabric and thread. The answer is: I could live here, but not like this. Not like this.
This is why the most beautiful moment in the production – the one all reviews will mention – comes when Suzy Storck asks for help with tidying the toys exploded across the floor. It’s the moment she remakes the world, for herself – creates community, creates a change in her circumstances, finds clarity, finds openness, finds connection. I have tidied a lot of toys in my time: I have always resisted asking for help. The simplicity of her request. The potential of it.
When I leave the play I want to write Suzy Storck a letter. I want to tell her the baby does stop crying, eventually. The toddler stops tantruming and the child stops shouting and these people, these strange amazing people, become characterful and intelligent and surprising, and you can learn from them as much as they might learn from you. I want to tell her that I know, I know what it is to feel that violence surge inside you, that scream between your ears, I know what it is to want to crush those small bones, to wield some fucking power, and to hold tight, because it passes. It passes. I know what it is to feel worthless, that comes and goes, ebbs and flows. I want to tell her that I felt no catharsis in her company, only the reopening of a wound. But the wound did get better.
It is too late to tell Suzy Storck these things. But maybe it isn’t to tell you.
Suzy Stork is on until 18 November 2017 at the Gate Theatre. Click here for more details.