“Sometimes you start out stupid you end up being nasty.” That seems to be the diagnosis handed out to modern masculinity in Violence and Son, Gary Owen’s knotty new play at the Royal Court. In a society in which aggression and casual sexism are passed down like bad joints, brutality is a fact of life. Misogyny is inherited, violence inevitable.
The words are spoken by Rick, whose nastiness has a habit of rearing its head after a few pints. There’s a reason the locals call him Violence (Vile for short). But for the last six months his life in the Welsh valleys with girlfriend Suze has been invaded by Liam, the teenage son he’s never known. On the surface, the pair couldn’t be more different. Liam is gentle, nerdy, prone to sporting a fez à la Matt Smith in Doctor Who. Still mourning for the loss of his mother, he sharpens his wit with sardonic swipes at his dad, avoiding Vile’s fists when he’s had a gutful. They are, as Liam puts it, getting used to one another.
In the confined circular space of Cai Dyfan’s set, ominously reminiscent of the boxing ring, father and son square up. It all starts amiably enough. Home from a Doctor Who convention with schoolfriend Jen – the Amy Pond to his bow-tie wearing Doctor – Liam agonises over their shifting relationship and bats away crude but well-meaning advice from Rick. It’s will-they-won’t-they meets odd couple comedy, peppered with gags and simmering with menace. There’s always the sense of something more lurking underneath, but Hamish Pirie’s canny production keeps the tone deceptively light and playful, the laughs rarely letting up.
Then, of course, comes the flip. It’s one of the oldest dramaturgical tricks in the book, but Owen and Pirie pull it off with gut-punching precision. The hints have all been dropped – the nickname, the undertow of discomfort, the troubling pub punch-up anecdote – but from the moment blood is drawn the mood suddenly turns with a queasy lurch. Rick and Liam’s relationship graduates from good-natured tussling to something altogether nastier, before Liam turns out to have more in common with his old man than we – or he – first thought.
Violence isn’t just the nickname of Liam’s aggressive, booze-dependent dad. It seeps into everything, from piss-ups down the pub to the delicate dynamic between father and son. And in a world in which violence is the norm, consent and complicity become increasingly tangled. Where is the line drawn between what’s acceptable and what’s not? What happens when actions and words are saying two different things? When is it worth standing up for yourself, and when is it better to be quietly complicit in the role of victim?
The play is one of questions rather than answers. Although Owen refuses to blur lines when handling sexual violence and consent, what he does do is place an individual act against a complex backdrop of normalised violence. It’s a risky tightrope to walk, but both play and production manage to withhold judgement at the same time as resisting the position of apologist. No remains no, yet we are dared to fall in love with Liam as a character, complicating our response to his actions. As the 17-year-old protagonist, David Moorst is all defensive wit and squirming awkwardness, his spiky charm covering up the fresh grief of losing his mother. Both in the way he shrinks – sometimes barely perceptibly – from his father and, later, in the stubborn set of his jaw, the scars of masculinity are beginning to show.
Rick, too, is harmed by the same violence he perpetrates. Jason Hughes puts in an astonishing performance as the reluctant father, torn between his habitual aggression and the genuine desire to do right by his newly returned flesh and blood. Even in the most light-hearted of moments, there’s a flicker of danger perpetually behind his eyes, a fuse waiting to be sparked. In one scene, as Rick’s impulse to comfort his son struggles to find any expression other than violence, his shoulders convulse with the effort of wrestling down his emotions. It reminds me of Men in the Cities and Chris Goode’s description of the artwork that gives the show its name: “each man is drawn contorted in a different way, in his own way, flailing”.
Offered such a grim and nuanced look at the state of masculinity in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of the two female characters. Morfydd Clark’s Jen especially is a meticulous study of teenage confusion, forever painfully calculating between what she wants, what she’s been told to want and what society has taught her she will get. It’s terrifying, yet not at all surprising, to witness the extent to which she’s already accepted the sexism that pervades everything from Doctor Who to the local pub where gropes are standard. Being a woman, Jen seems to have worked out, is all about finding and playing the right role. One wrong step can be disastrous. And though the role of Suze is the least developed of the quartet, as played by Siwan Morris we get glimpses of the tension between her instinctive tenderness and the internalised misogyny that makes her loyal to Rick. Men writhe dangerously inside their own skins; women put up with the lesser of many evils. Patriarchy shits on everyone.
Tonally, as well as thematically, Violence and Son is quite a feat, handling the greyest of ethical grey zones with the same deft hand as the opening comedy. In the end, though, Owen pushes the seesaw too far the other way, driving his point into the ground. The pressure of the final plot contrivance threatens to crush the closing scene, making unnecessarily explicit what is up to that point brilliantly subtle. Still, it’s an analysis of masculinity and a portrait of twenty-first-century society that’s hard to shake off.