Words by Emma Curzon / Promotional image by Hugh O’Connor
This searing production is a play that demands to be seen: a bleak, rage-filled tragedy that shines an unflinching spotlight on 21st-century rape culture and refuses to let you look away.
Hosted by the Birmingham REP, after a highly-acclaimed run at Ireland’s National Theatre, Asking for It was adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Meadhbh McHugh and director Annabelle Comyn, from the novel of the same name by Louise O’Neill.
The premise is as simple as it is horrific: Emma, a teenage girl from a small town in County Cork, is gang-raped at a party; the rapists take photos of the attack and post them online. Cue a brutal, sickening spiral into slut-shaming and victim blaming by everyone from journalists and radio callers, to neighbours, classmates and her own parents, in a twisted form of collective punishment for “ruining those good boys’ lives” (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much – that’s the horrifying part).
There are three main pillars to the play’s considerable strength: the expert writing of McHugh (and O’Neill), Comyn’s direction, and a truly stellar performance by Coe. In fact, I can honestly say that the Dublin-grown actress gives one of the most heart-rending portrayals of a trauma survivor that I’ve ever seen.
Coe moves seamlessly between numb depression, terrified panic attacks, and horrified despair. She is an unforgettable – no, powerful presence, even as her character becomes smaller, more vulnerable and more traumatised by the second. The rest of the cast, too, give strong performances, particularly Dawn Bradfield as Emma’s mother and Liam Heslin as her well-meaning but ineffective brother.
No review of this play, either, should overlook its non-human elements. Here, the metaphorical Oscar goes to Paul O’Mahony’s set, a monochrome structure of glass boxes and panels that are moved around to create various settings, and onto which flickering, blurry video footage is projected. Both are brilliantly deployed to highlight Emma’s downward spiral as she becomes more and more trapped, both physically and mentally. Eventually, the set has enclosed the entire stage to make the walls and roof of her kitchen, by which point she is too traumatised and stigmatised to leave the house.
The choices of soundtrack were commendable too, although I do question the realism of incorporating an admittedly excellent dance routine to David Guetta’s ‘Hey Mama’. I’m not saying teen parties are devoid of David Guetta, but I’m pretty sure they don’t include perfectly synchronised, choreographed dance sets.
The main downside of the play is that parts of the narrative are left underdeveloped. McHughs is admirably thorough with Emma’s development, but other characters are neglected. Despite lengthy periods in Act 1 being spent on Emma’s peers, including brief monologues, they – including a friend who has also been assaulted – rapidly vanish, never to be seen again. It spends too much time, by contrast, on Emma’s appearance (if she were less “beautiful”, she wonders, would that night have happened?) rather than acknowledging that a rapist can target anyone, no matter what they look like.
Still, any flaws are generally forgivable given as the play has a clear aim and, in my mind, more than achieves it. It’s a hard-hitting, bitter dissection of the hell of rape and its aftermath – a snarl of defiance against a world that still, too often, blames rape victims (especially women) for their assaults. It’s a refusal to be silenced and ignored when many would like nothing better than to look away, and a defiant claiming of a voice for the millions of real-life Emmas all over the world, even as their fictional counterpart’s own voice is slowly eroded away into nothing.
In the REP foyer, a few volunteers from Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid (BSWA) set up a stand with flyers advertising their helpline. In the women’s bathrooms, on the insides of the cubicle doors, a poster asks me: has this play affected me in any way? If so, it then gives the numbers for BSWA and the Rape & Sexual Violence Project.
Leaving the theatre, I have to wonder – did anyone in the audience call either number? Did the play bring up memories of their own, similar experiences? With around 85,000 women and 12,000 men experiencing rape or attempted rape in England and Wales every year, there’s a distinct possibility that the answer is ‘yes’. And that, more than anything else, is why this play is so desperately needed.
Asking for It – official trailer
Asking for It runs at the Birmingham REP until Saturday 15th February, with evening shows and matiness shows on Saturday 8th and Thursday 13th February. For more details, including the full show schedule and links to online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/asking-for-it
**Please note: Asking for It is recommended for 14+. The show contains scenes of a sexual nature, strong language and violence**
For more on Asking for It, www.askingforit.ie
For more from the Birmingham REP, including further event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk
NOT NORMAL NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual aggression in the music industry and beyond – from dance floor to dressing room, everyone deserves a safe place to play.
If you have been affected by any issues surrounding sexual violence – or if you want to report an act of sexual aggression, abuse or assault – click here for information via the ‘Help & Support’ page on the NOT NORMAL NOT OK website.