We returned to the Royal Court Theatre this week, although this time we were sitting in their white box theatre above the main stage. A white box theatre is just like a black box theatre- usually a small space with the ability to move the audience into several different configurations. White and black box theatres are best for shows with minimal set, cast, and design. Last night we saw Nathaniel Martello-White’s Torn.
Torn is the story, or collection of stories, from a family’s history and the inability to move on from a memory that each person represses. Good ol’ family fun, am I right? It was set in modern day London, in presumably a therapist’s office or some sort of office space. Within the circle of chairs they sat in the actors would seamlessly move between past and present, combining conversations from different years. Not only is it a play about family, but about a mixed-race family in England. It is part of the script that this family is British-African, or else the play would lose a great deal of meaning. There was 1st Twin (mom to Angel), 2nd Twin (mom to Couzin), Steve (1st Twin’s second husband), Aunty L, Aunty J, Brother, Couzin, Brian (Angel and Brother’s dad), Nanny (portrayed mainly by Aunty J), and Angel.
The crux of this play is the inability to admit the truths of their dark past, pushing forward and leaving behind the scars of memory. Angel, our heroine of sorts, has collected the family to talk about a moment in her childhood that has shaped the rest of her life. Her family’s inability to listen and accept her word is infuriating. It is presumed by the audience that Angel was raped by her white step-father, Steve, when she was ten. Although the words rape, molestation, assault, or even harassment, are never used. The incident is always referred to as “it” or “the incident,” but even those words were rarely used. Through the forceful nature of Angel’s lines, she also brings out the repressed memories of her mom and aunts. Their mother was Irish (aka Nanny), a raging alcoholic, and in a no way a fit parent. So through Angel’s hurt pours out the decades worth of pain from the sisters.
Although this is a family filled with several “strong” women, we find out that most of the love and attention was pressed onto Brother and Couzin. Because of this attention Angel is raised filled with equal parts contempt and yearning for her mother. Even at the end of the play when her mother admits to knowing that “something was going on,” Angel still desperately desires her mother’s love. This desire has been passed down from her mother and the sisters, who never felt true love from their mother. To sit and watch the aunts’ tell Couzin that he was the only hope for this family while Angel was watching was so painful. The audience is definitely supposed to side with Angel, however there is some evidence thrown that makes you doubt her word, which made my skin crawl. The mother (1st Twin) talks to the sisters about how Angel has made extremely broad lies before, so the mother uses this to constantly debunk her daughter’s accusations. It was messed up. The true tragedy was realizing that almost every family deals with this kind of repression of trauma, or they never learn of it and it remains buried in the depths of the victim. Even though Couzin was the most looked after child, Couzin and Aunty L are the two who look out for Angel the most. I would’ve been furious if these empowered men just forgot about angel, but both of them took notice and listened (somewhat) to Angel’s pleas.
We only have very small glimpses of Steve and Angel alone, which was plenty. Like any truly horrifying villain, Steve’s façade of jovial ambivalence was quite convincing. The main scene between the two was Steve informing Angel (a mixed race girl, remember) about two different types of slaves. The last line of his monologue was, “They obeyed, didn’t they? They obeyed.” Following this, Angel made Steve a cup of tea and as he walked away he stared into the audience’s eyes as he blew into his cup to cool it off. I can’t imagine how my face looked because I could feel myself filling with rage and astonishment.
Towards the end of the play 1st Twin comes to Couzin to ask for money. We find out that she has “forgotten her black children” and has raised two children with Steve in a new house. However by the time she is asking for money Steve has left her with the children. Through an interrogation 1st Twin keeps repeating something about “we can’t go back to…I can’t go back to..” I can’t remember the street name, but it was a specific one. I’m sure this was agony for this actress, because what is the mother’s reason for pushing aside her knowledge of her daughter’s trauma because she’s too afraid to move back to this place? That question will probably be one of the first things I will remember when I think of this play. Every character had to have reasons for something that put others in harm’s way. If these actor’s hadn’t done their character and text work it could’ve so easily fallen apart.
I don’t remember seeing a play where I didn’t question the reality until now. Usually there’s a mistake, a sound, or action that takes me out of the “reality,” but in this production I was completely in it. I was so caught up in the world of the play that I don’t think there should’ve been a curtain call. When the play ended, the actress playing Angel whipped back her head in a triumphant smile and suddenly this world came crashing down around me. As I watched her brimming with excitement from a good performance, I started sobbing. I felt kind of disrespected, honestly. The bow felt disrespectful because it was like she was throwing away this character, who needed help and love so badly. It felt like she was shirking the responsibilities of this “broken” girl, and furthered the feeling of pushing Angel (or any victim of sexual assault) away until the problem is forgotten.
The insufferable cycle of seeking love was so painful to watch. From generation to generation, each character sought love (or approval, which can sometimes be mistaken for love) from someone who could not give it. 1st Twin sought love from Steve, Angel sought love from her mother, 2nd Twin sought love from her mother and son, and so on. It was pitiful and pathetic. I don’t say this in a disdainful manner, but in a truthful one. Watching someone who refuses help suffer is terrible, but if they don’t want or accept help then it will never happen and the cycle will continue on.