How can we draw a line between the public and private self? What if our routine is turned upside down and affects our private relationships and self-concepts? What if trust seems to be an unfathomable, illusionistic concept between people in a marriage, between people in a counselling room, within the own self?

All these questions are explored when the Park Theatre is turned into a therapy session for the world premiere of The Secondary Victim (directed by Matthew Gould). Alongside being the playwright, Matthew Campling is a therapist and The Secondary Victim marks his tenth produced play. Merging theatre and therapy, the play hits the right tone of intimacy and exposure, reaching the level of a psychological thriller.

Ali (Susannah Doyle) is a professional psychotherapist whose life scatters in mismatched fragments when she receives a letter of an allegation of sexual misconduct by a former client, Hugo (Michael Hanratty). Her marriage with Victor (Gary Webster) recently suffered from financial problems, and now they face a much bigger challenge that attacks and questions their life together. The juxtaposition of the counselling situation of Hugo and his new therapist, Jonny (Matt Holt), reveals new perspectives and layers to the case as well as the meeting between Ali and her supervisor Marilyn (Natasha Bain). The line between perpetrator and victim is blurry; the circumstances frame the behaviour and its reception, which is experienced in an encounter where vulnerability and control shifts easily between the two positions.

The setting is basic and includes four chairs on a light blue patterned carpet, representing a counselling room. As the audience sits around watching not only the scenes unfold but also each other’s reactions, the immersion as voyeurs into staged therapy is achieved. The actors further dissolve the fourth wall as they find their seats in the auditorium at the beginning and wait for a clue on their role. The staged story stresses its performativity within the rigid pattern of a therapy session, as well as its undermining by the application of a code of ethics on real, unplanned situations. The basic setting is a creative cleverness, as it not only focuses on the power dynamics in two people encounters, but also on the metaphorical change of perspectives.

The scene changes are sharp and restless, suggesting the charged atmosphere. Doyle is nearly constantly on stage, stressing the rigid structure of role-playing and the increasing lack of agency in her initially well-structured and functioning lifestyle. Doyle convinces in her warm portrayal of the independent and rigid, but caring and vulnerable Ali whose mask of professionalism and scrutiny is perforated. Webster, as her husband, is the convincing voice of ignorance and feelings of inferiority, unmasking the problematic merge of private and public self, as well as the paradox of independence and dependence that exists in a relationship. Their performative nature is a perfectly executed reaction to each other’s actions.

The performances of the three therapists (Doyle, Bain and Holt) merge between rigidness and subjectivity, questioning the person behind the role in the convincing embodiment of three different approaches. Bain gives a stunning performance that juggles between profession and privacy. Hanratty presents a strong embodiment of a layered character whose reception shifts between empathy and mistrust, opening a new level of ambiguity in the case. Ali’s other client, Teddy (Christopher Laishley), is a suspect of sexual misconduct himself and shows another portrayal of the person behind this life-destroying accusation. Laishley’s lively and touching presentation of vulnerability questions the subjective behaviour in the counselling room and its judgement in the mirrored case of accusation.

The end scene is thrilling in its ambiguity, but threatens to fall into a stereotyped version of a psychological thriller. It is unclear if psychological warfare or closure is intended as it gives hints in both directions. As the genre of the play is open for interpretation, this choice of ending positions the audience as active perceiver.

Presenting The Secondary Victim in the context of recent developments of accusations of sexual misconduct frames and stresses its relevance, even though the scandals did not inform or motivate its performance as Campling stresses. The gap between two people can be filled not only through physical, but also imaginary bridges that affect the frames and colours of any relationship. The Secondary Victim contributes successfully to the portrayal of the private and public self, their boundaries and their mergence to question trust and power dynamics. Who is the victim in The Secondary Victim? You should have a look for yourself.

The Secondary Victim is playing at the Park Theatre until December 9 2017.

Photo: Matthew House