Milly Thomas’s new play, Brutal Cessation, is not for the squeamish. There’s a scene in which Lydia Larson’s character lovingly describes in graphic, gory detail about how she fantasises about smashing her boyfriend’s head in, sometimes with her foot, sometimes with her fist, sometimes with a claw hammer but only when she feels really close to him. I watched through my fingers, wondering whether I was going to throw up (also my reaction to reading Blasted, the eye-gouging bit in King Lear and any Philip Ridley play, so Thomas is in good company). There’s a chillingly effective theatrical moment when Alan Mahon’s character smashes up a watermelon, scooping out the red flesh with the claw of a hammer and cramming it into his mouth. In an inspired directorial choice from Bethany Pitts, the stage gets messier, with watermelon, ketchup, spaghetti, as the scale of the dysfunction of their relationship becomes apparent. Mahon cleans it up. The detritus of their relationship is pushed to the side of the stage.
The play is cleverly structured, a mirror line bifurcating it around two-thirds of the way through. Things repeat. We see the relationship from a different perspective and the versatility of Mahon and Larson as actors. The scenes are distilled from words into gestures, lurching from one to the next with the percussive cling of Jon McLeod’s sound design. The play ends where it begins. They might be laughing but I’m pretty sure they’re crying.
What troubled me about the play was a suspicion that it was a formal exercise. In the normalisation of the violence of Mahon and Larson’s characters’ relationship, it is not framed as abuse. Thomas does not give her characters a way out of this toxic situation. But she also does not go full Kane or Ridley and explore the implications of Larson’s chilling line, ‘I lead you to a table and I hurt you’, her expression of love through violent fantasies.
Brutal Cessation and Thomas’ other play at the fringe, Dust, made me wonder whether theatre productions have a duty to look after their audience when they are exploring such topics as domestic abuse or, as in Dust, suicide. I am not saying that theatre should have trigger warnings or that Thomas is irresponsible in writing about these things but I think they both could have shown more care.
Alice wakes up on a cold metal slab. She is dead. She is watching her own autopsy from outside her body.
Her character is funny, flippant, in an assured performance by Milly Thomas herself. She rages at the pathologists for going through her body and her things. Having a monologue written from the perspective of a dead person is an interesting concept but difficult to sustain. The world around her changes. Her boyfriend gets a new girlfriend; her best friend Ellie is pregnant. Alice is static, although she does now seem to regret killing herself as death is not the ending it appeared. It is not entirely clear what the rules of the playworld are. Is she a ghost? No-one can hear her. She can’t operate her iPhone, much to her chagrin (she ‘can’t live without it’), because it requires heat. She can, however, eat and, bizarrely, finish off her friend during sex when her boyfriend isn’t delivering.
Dust is most effective when it shows the toll depression and suicide takes on those around the person. Alice’s friend Ellie asked her to move out because she couldn’t cope living with her. Alice’s brother’s speech at the funeral, railing against her for being selfish, is heart-breaking. It captures the powerless that comes with being around someone who feels like taking their own life is an inevitability.
Brutal Cessation runs until 28th August at Assembly George Square. Click here for more details.
Dust runs until 27th August at Underbelly Cowgate. Click here for more details.