Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses the aftermath of trauma and topics such as sexual assault, rape, and self-harm. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
Miriam Battye’s stage adaptation of Rebecca Watson’s novel little scratch is clinical and imposing in its stripped-back, heavily audial presentation. Illuminated by four overhead lamps, the actors underneath them share a relentless and overwhelming internal monologue about a woman attempting to process the trauma of sexual assault in the workplace. In focussing most of its attention on its expansive sound design (from Melanie Wilson), the play manages to accomplish an unsettling and stuffy atmosphere where sound comes to the fore and stays there – up close to the microphone and without any substantial pauses – for 95 minutes.
In that respect, Katie Mitchell’s direction is a faithful theatrical translation of Watson’s work, a book which disobeys the traditional layout and instead sees the words trickle down the page. The play is intense through the use of so little. It’s fast-paced and chaotic, even in such a short running time. Even its protagonist hates silence and yet, at many points, we witness a devastating cycle whereby it’s the very thing she seeks when her intrusive thoughts become too much to bear, locking herself away in the bathroom and scratching her skin for a moment, only for the quiet to soon be filled back up again with all the crosstalk. Trauma’s irrationality and contradictions, and the ease with which it can consume a person, is depicted in a way which is appropriately dizzying and disorientating.
There are some elements which nevertheless ground the production. Eve Ponsonby, furthest left on the stage from the audience’s point of view, is the voice who guides us through the woman’s day at work and a date with her boyfriend afterwards. This is in contrast to Ragevan Vasan, furthest right, who is arguably the sharpest and most direct in his delivery. These two constants in an otherwise deliberately discordant play only go so far in terms of addressing our expectations. Our heads still dart around constantly trying to find the source of the next line of dialogue, Deaf and neurodivergent audience members will no doubt struggle with the processing, and those with misophonia will absolutely loathe the gulping and slapping of lips which occur when actors Eleanor Henderson and Rebekah Murrell drink water and bite into a banana respectively. The implication that someone being asexual is “f***ed up” is just as unpleasant.
Again, it’s so evident what the production is trying to do by being so urgent (the serious subject matter most definitely mandates it). Yet, even when the plot tries to explore the ways in which intrusive thoughts can bleed into and shape an objective reality – such as when the survivor of rape mentally undresses a writer at a poetry reading – the blending of the visible monologues and the invisible environments (only described verbally by the ensemble) isn’t clear cut and distinctive. We get so caught up in descriptions of a note found in the office toilets that for a moment, I forget our protagonist is still at work. Contemplations on whether she should tell her boyfriend about her experience – her overthinking often allows for profound and hard-hitting musings – mean we lose sense of the fact that she is riding a bicycle at the same time. Some external ambience set the scene at times (not least at the aforementioned poetry event), but more of that could have ensured we always have a firm grasp of the location and progression through the day which underpins so much of this story.
Many will argue theatre is a place to let your guard down, and sometimes theatre productions will exploit that fact to reel you in with humour before presenting a considerably striking and powerful argument. With little scratch, however, it feels rare for a show to force us into a state of being so on edge, hyper-alert and self-conscious within the space we occupy from the outset. Doing so makes it a lot easier for us to empathise with a character whose experience of abuse has very much been made to feel the same. With some slight stumbles in scene setting, Mitchell’s constant and confrontational take on Watson’s work is an impressive and exhausting portrayal of the psychological pressures which linger in a traumatised mind.
little scratch is now playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 13 May. Captioned, relaxed and babes-in-arms performances are scheduled for 3, 4 and 11 May respectively.
Production Images: Ellie Kurttz.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘little scratch’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.