“Enjoyable” isn’t exactly the word for Unheard. This new writing festival takes on the extremely difficult and often undiscussed subject matter of sexual abuse and violence. Stories are told by a variety of writers, directors and performers, exploring the consequences of abuse and rape; little is shied away from. Unheard is difficult to watch, but it confronts issues that need to be confronted, presenting a variety of approaches that provoke thought and discussion.
The opening piece, Finally (written by A.C. Smith and directed by Tessa Hart), could be seen as Unheard’s manifesto. Four women of different nationalities (played by Zena Carswell, Jiin Jang, Nadia Shash, and Priscilla Adade-Helledy) are united through their experiences, their words interweaving, all communicating the idea that speaking out means power. It also introduces the audience to the combination of anger and vulnerability that echoes throughout the festival, and to a technique of uniting together — either through language, or by portraying different aspects of the same person.
The international ensemble of Finally is followed by the very middle class, very English marriage of Heather (Charlott Reinhold) and vicar Luke (Jonathan Matthews) in Guidance. Written by Amy Bethan Evans and directed by Becky Catlin, Guidance focuses on the psychology of repression, rather than on the empowerment of discussion. A mixture of interaction and monologues grant us access to Heather and Luke’s thoughts, although the combination of the two can at times feel clunky. Social pressure to ignore or excuse sexual abuse is explored here, embodied through Reinhold’s jealous and conservative housewife as she manipulates Matthews’ earnest and intense Luke. This theme is continued in the realism of Walking and Rape. Walking (written by Tilly Lunken and directed by Kuba Drewa) splits one person’s observations between three performers (Shash, Gabby Wong and Carswell), questioning the readiness with which we accept sexual threat as a part of our lives. Rape (written by Hebe Reilly and directed by Bradley Leech) is performed conversationally by Jang, who presents a graphic account of a woman’s assault at the hands of someone thought to be a friend.
Similar to Rape, Ethan R. Chapples’ Animals is uncomfortable to watch: directed by Hart, the reunion of a brother (Matthews) and sister (Felicity Walsh) in the wake of their father’s death is not made any easier by the presence of a spandex-clad masochist. As Colin, Matthews affectingly portrays the bitterness and need for some form of sexual empowerment of a victim of childhood abuse. The presence of Tony (Sam Goodchild) as comic relief is an interesting juxtaposition of a very dark subject matter with humour: I couldn’t help feeling slightly guilty when I laughed.
Rachel Long’s Fifteen (directed by Leech) is a short, poetic monologue performed by Carswell. The piece’s language is powerful and experimental, filled with internal rhymes. I felt that the piece could have been extended slightly to expand upon its themes of adolescent sexuality and further develop its poetic techniques.
The final piece, like Animals, considers the consequences of childhood abuse. A Little Night Music (written by Amy Ng and directed by Shang Ng), like the preceding works, splits one female character into pieces: the woman in present day, dealing with marriage and pregnancy (Reinhold), an alter ego — dominatrix Madame (Wong) — and the woman’s teenage self (Hart). Early abuse has left the woman fragmented and with a deeply confused relationship to sex. A Little Night Music’s examination of rape culture can be genuinely shocking: there was a slideshow of adverts that I could barely believe were real.
Although Unheard is made up of different plays performed by different actors, there is real thematic cohesion. It feels as though those involved have worked closely together, and the overall effect is powerful. The pieces are uncomfortable and upsetting, conveying something genuinely painful with a palpable sense of injustice and anger. Enjoyable, no: but Unheard undoubtedly succeeds in igniting discussions that should be had about stories that shouldn’t be silenced.
Unheard is playing at The Space on June 9 & 16. For more information and tickets, see The Space website.