Leaving Milly Thomas’ play Brutal Cessation, I glance at the playtexts sold outside the theatre. One line on the blurb catches my attention: it suggests that one of Thomas’s main questions explored with this play is why we don’t take abusive women seriously. Thomas’s play features two actors, one male and one female, playing a couple – but, as the play progresses, we see scenes repeated with the actors swapping parts, urging us to reassess our perceptions of gender in abusive relationships. This is totally a valid topic to explore – domestic abuse by women often goes unreported and unchallenged, making it a topic necessary to discuss. However, in Brutal Cessation, it doesn’t quite work out in practice.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that the performances are deliberately tailored to mislead us. As the central couple of the play, Alan Mahon and Lydia Larson are both engaging and enjoyably versatile to watch, but the scenes in which Larson displays abusive behaviour are performed with a certain playfulness, whereas when Mahon takes these same lines, he plays them with a controlling, malicious edge that we have come to expect from portrayals of abusive male figures.
The second is that the Larson’s character’s fantasies and the power games she plays with her boyfriend are incredibly disturbing. Her gleeful description of how she wants to smash her partner’s head in and scoop around inside his scull are vivid, gory, and troubling. Even if, in the mouth of a woman, these words are supposed to be less worrying, this doesn’t stop them from coming across as abuse regardless.
I’m in two minds about the way the stage becomes messier as the play goes on, only to be neatly packed up again in a box. It’s a wonderful bit of symbolism from director Bethany Pitts, but because of the story’s non-chronological non-linear structure, it gets a little distracting and confusing. That being said, Pitts’ use of food to symbolise images of violence is both critically informed and fantastic to watch: the conflation of sex and violence and the wires crossed between the two differing versions of the characters are definitely captured in this decision.
Brutal Cessation is certainly an interesting piece, and its formal experiment is thought-provoking. But its core concept needs a little more work – at the moment, it’s too easy to poke holes in. The concluding scene of the play is beautifully performed, and is Thomas’ writing at its best. When it’s good, it’s great, and takes a complex look at power and gender in abusive relationships.