Villain is a one-woman show with a clear aim: to show audience members that social workers are, in fact, people.
Writer and director Martin Murphy, an individual who has seen the impact this career has had on friends and families, has created the story of Rachel – a woman who wanted to make a difference, was involved in a horrific case, and who subsequently has been turned into a monster by the press, by trolls on Twitter, and by every member of the public who should like to admonish her.
I would like to make it very clear now that Villain most certainly achieves its aim.
A large part of this is through the performance of Maddie Rice, who is an incredible tour de force. In her opening scene, her captivating eyes glisten, and she forces the audience to acknowledge the quiet horror of a simple commute in her new role as society’s villain. One or two sardonic comments are delivered with the perfect level of gallows humour, causing the audience to laugh, but not allowing them relief from the clear pain of the situation.
Immediately following this, Rice thrusts her spectators into a club where Rachel is 22, laughing, drunk, fresh from university and excited about her new job and her new flat. The contrast is so stark, almost as though she is a whole new character. The audience is forced to realise this is the same woman, but from a more care-free time; that the wretched lady was once not wretched, and that we will have to watch her descent, knowing full well what she will become. Throughout the play, Rice never misses an emotional beat. At times, she is utterly hilarious, and makes full use of the humour of the script. At other times she communicates a suffering so acute that the audience must suffer in turn. In addition to this, Rice is terribly likeable: no matter her character’s faults, her energy is magnetic. We have been made her confidants, and we understand her.
The play’s structure is non-linear, and the scenes continue to jump back and forth in time. The contrast of younger and older Rachel further forces us to acknowledge her as a human being, with a past, who has undergone existential alcohol-drenched dread, who has been shaped by her past, who had good intentions, and hopes of doing something meaningful. While the outside world continually abbreviates her – forcing her to become a neglectful social worker, implicated in something terrible – the audience cannot reduce her to an article on page 7 of the Standard.
Nor, by the end of the show, would we we want to.
Throughout the play, we are denied the details of the case – a withholding that builds tension, and is a pointed refusal to give our curiosity immediate gratification. The show will not give us the specifics that Rachel’s contemporaries use to vilify her until she has a chance to prove her (un-villanous) character. As the final short, a harrowing scene gives us the sought-for information, then gives way to blackout, we wonder at the future of social care: at how anyone could take on the risks and responsibilities of such a role. And this is because Villain knows better than to lecture its audience. It obeys the sacred principle that one should show, not tell. It doesn’t simply lecture us, but rather demonstrates why we need to be careful, and think a little more before passing harsh judgments on individuals who become defined solely by their mistakes.
Villain played at Soho Theatre on 2 August and will be transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.