Harrison is a failed architect turned maths teacher, and at the beginning of Schism, is preparing to end his own life, until boisterous 14-year-old Katherine interrupts him. She has cerebral palsy, and she’s sick of being treated like she’s stupid. Harrison helps to get her out of her special education class and into his math class, and with extra tutelage and guidance, all the way to college. After eight years of knowing one another and after Katherine graduates, the pair begins a romance doomed to fail. Written and co-starring Athena Stevens as the gutsy Katherine, the play lists the multiple obstacles that Katherine faces from adolescence into adulthood, as both someone with a disability, and as a woman.
As Katherine and Harrison’s (Jonathan McGuiness) relationship grows, his belief in her ability dwindles. But Katherine challenges him, again and again, which he doesn’t always receive well. She decides to train as an architect, Harrison’s field, and yet again proves herself to be capable of anything anyone else can do, although admittedly we watch her work twice as hard to convince people of her talent and ability. It is here where their dynamic begins to change, and Harrison’s strange role as teacher/caregiver/friend/lover starts to feel a little off-key. This is obviously not because Katherine is disabled, but because of its slightly dodgy origins. She was just 14 when they met, and he was a recent divorcee in a position of authority, which is arguably a little unethical.
McGuiness is a perfect narrator, brooding, self-involved and self-pitying, and subtly conveys Harrison’s complex array of emotions for Katherine. Stevens bears all of Katherine’s wit, strength and desires, and her determination is palpable. Directed by Lily McLeish, the pair spars with one-another perfectly, as if they have known one-another for years.
Schism is, at its heart, just a really bloody interesting play. While there are moments of pretentious or cheesy symbolism here and there, overall it has an incredible authenticity to it. It explores themes of sexism, domestic violence and ableism to name a few, and it’s just a good, thick plot with developed and important ideas on not just what it is to be a disabled person today, but what it is to be a woman, too. It is, in essence, a feminist text. It is arguable that Katherine doesn’t always act admirably – and why should she? But she always does what she wants to do. An engrossing chronicle of a 20-year relationship, Schism is a heavy and loaded story, but ultimately truthful.
Schism is booking at the Park Theatre until October 2018
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey