Can I get a witness?

[Content warning: most of this relates to sexual violence]

To witness an event is to be present at it in some fundamentally ethical way, to feel the weight of things and one’s place in them, even if that place is simply, for the moment, as an onlooker. … The art-work that turns us into witnesses leaves us, above all, unable to stop thinking, talking and reporting what we’ve seen.”

[Tim Etchells, Certain Fragments]

It is September 2015 and I’m sitting in the Upstairs Theatre at the Royal Court wondering why, why: why I’m here, why I put myself through these things, why I have to listen to yet another story about a woman who is raped, and raped, and sold by her husband to friends, to strangers, used, abused, dehumanised, commodified, raped, raped, again, again. The details described are unbearable. The events left to the imagination are unbearable. The room is plunged into darkness but the voice continues, the violence continues, and even if there’s no screaming, it screams, even if there is no iron brand, it sears.

Written by Cordelia Lynn, directed by Jude Christian and designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, Lela & Co is one of the few plays that has left me genuinely unable to stop thinking, and talking, reporting back even when the conversation is about another play entirely. I close my eyes and see the room red and fresh as a shock of blood, Lela bright and perky in the centre of it, her dress virginal white, and a man, glittering in gold suit — like Elvis when 50 million fans couldn’t be wrong (those days, 1959, when his girlfriend was 14 years old, to his 24), like the host of a game show where no one has to compete, because a woman is always just there for the claiming — repeatedly thrusting his way into her story. Lynn calls the piece a monologue in the subtitle but Lela’s narration is stabbed and distorted and claimed by a series of men: the father who beats her, with love of course; and the brother-in-law who infantilises her, then manoeuvres her into an unwanted marriage with a business associate — she’s 15 at the time, but hers is not a culture in which women have much choice in these matters; the husband whose business fails when the country collapses into war, but who builds a much more lucrative and successful business from the body, or rather the orifices, of his wife; the peacekeeper who prefers her to the other sex workers he encounters, bodies piled into dirty rooms, but refuses to risk his job by helping her escape. These details, the details about the men, I don’t remember: I reread them in the script as I write, and recoil all over again. It’s Lela, round-faced, girlish, optimistic, so vibrantly performed by Katie West, that I remember: the ways in which these men try to crush her body the way a compacter might crush a car; the ways she is resilient, the small ways she finds to resist.

I’m sitting listening to Lela as she slips through a sliver of time into freedom, crawls and claws her way back home, to the family who — she discovers — knew, benefitted, shopped on the proceeds of her hidden exploitation, a microcosm of everything unethical about capitalism; to the family who refuse to let her tell her story, and the realisation floods through me: this is why. I’m here to bear witness. Much was made in the publicity for Lela & Co of it being based on a true story; Lela herself says it repeatedly, although Lynn, in interview, emphasised its fictional construction. Perhaps it’s not the single true story of one woman but it is the truth of so many, several and composite, familiar, known, happening right now, around the world, as I sit at my desk, amid the safety of my books, trying to peer through the dark to where these women are. I was there, am here, to bear witness, to listen, because anything else, anything less, would be an abominable abnegation of responsibility.

*

If I were to even, one fine day, stand up and say, ‘Lela. My name is Lela, and this is my own story, this is what happpened to me’, I have to ask would they even, would they hear, because we have a way, a very way, a very human way of not hearing and not seeing, no not even seeing…”

[Cordelia Lynn, Lela & Co]

It is — according to what I can glean from the internet — some time in 1996 or 1997, which would make me 21 or 22, although in my memory of that night I’m much younger, 15 at most. I’m watching a TV film called In Your Dreams, in which two university students go on a date, and as their versions of what happened next diverge, so does the story, the screen itself splitting into his and hers. He remembers going back to her place, her slipping into silk, inviting him to share her bed, their bodies curled together, making love. She recalls letting him stay over despite the fact that she was tired and wanted just to sleep, wearing a long and dowdy towelling robe as she made up the sofa, hearing him come into her room anyway, trying to push him off, being raped. Her accusation goes to trial and the TV audience, I, become a kind of jury charged with deciding what’s true. I remember thinking: there’s something a bit off about the way she’s telling it. She was cold and unsympathetic; he was charming, and caring, full of love. Even when her lawyer revealed a key piece of evidence — that the woman was on her period that night, and wearing a tampon, fucking hell it’s still so vivid, the description of how the tampon was shoved up into her vagina — even then I was prepared to think he hadn’t done it. And indeed that was the verdict. He hadn’t done it.

The film ended with the truth, or at least another several and composite truth: that she wore her usual pyjamas, that she let him stay over because it’s hard to say no, isn’t it? And she let him sleep beside her in her bed, because he kept on insisting, wearing her down. But she didn’t say yes to sex. She refused. He didn’t listen. And it was rape.

Twenty years the feeling of sick in the back of my mouth from seeing him rape her has stayed with me.

My life from roughly 14 to 21 was sandblasted by story after story of rape: the gang-rape of Jodie Foster in The Accused, attack after attack but particularly the guy with the huge jagged ring with which he would rip open the woman’s vagina in Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend, Chloe Sevigny’s limp body being fucked by a friend with AIDS in Kids, the incidents shared in riot grrrl fanzines, the sex education lessons in which rape alarms were distributed, with advice about holding your keys between your fingers as you walk home at night, ready to stab an attacker in the eye. Whether or not the story ended with the woman getting revenge, or getting her story heard and believed, was irrelevant: what mattered was the vulnerability, the risk, ever-present, that it could happen to you. I’ve managed to reach the age of 42 without being raped or sexually assaulted, but I can’t put a full stop without first saying (yet).

That knowledge of vulnerability engenders fear, and fear demands taking responsibility for minimising risk, and before you know it you’ve developed a mindset where it’s your fault: your fault for wearing provocative clothes, your fault for walking home too late at night on your own, your fault for not phoning the right cab firm, your fault for drinking too much. Never the man’s fault for failing to keep his hands to himself and his weasle of a dick in his trousers, no. And so you watch a film in which two versions of the same event are presented and it’s the man who gets your sympathy. A friend tells you about another friend who was assaulted and without pausing to think you ask: what was she wearing?

*

If all I can do is sit and sit and sit with the suffering, not run or hide or cover or distract but sit and bear witness, then perhaps I can repair some of my own suffering and some of humanity’s suffering.”

[Anne, storyteller in the Forgiveness Project, quoted in the text of Foreign Body]

A woman’s body, a chair, a semi-circle of standing mirrors, each one individual in design. The woman’s body is strong, muscular, but there’s something unsettling about her relationship with that chair: a quality of oppression. Even when she moves away from it, to dance as though at a nightclub, to look at herself in one of the mirrors, it’s as if she is connected to it, she can’t escape it fully. It rolls over her, presses itself to her, burdens her; stiff, awkward, an encumbrance, it keeps on becoming something it shouldn’t.

Created and performed by Imogen Butler-Cole, directed by Fran Moulds and with another simple but striking design by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, Foreign Body asks its audience to feel the weight of things and one’s place in them. On the cover of her programme Butler-Cole writes: “One third of our women have survived sexual violence. We are all affected. We are all responsible.” If her tone here is stern, it’s because she knows how easy it is to shirk that responsibility. Especially for men overcome by lust.

Although Butler-Cole’s voice is heard during the performance, it’s only in recordings, like the other women who talk of the sexual violence experienced in their own lives, emerging from a multitextured score by Tara Franks and Filipe Sousa. One of the speakers sounds painfully young; another, although older, was 13 when she was raped by two 16-year-olds, repeatedly over five hours, dissociating from her body to such an extent that she “watched” the whole thing from the top of her wardrobe, the two of them taking turns to fuck her, finally pissing on her prone body when done. “It’s not about comparison,” she reassures Butler-Cole, responding to an unheard self-remonstration that the things she experienced — penetrated by fingers, not penises —were mild. If the show has an argument, it’s that when your body is touched in a way you don’t want — in a way that makes your own body feel foreign to you — it’s assault. A violence and a violation.

Watching Foreign Body there is a small voice in the back of my mind reminding me of the times I’ve pushed a hand away only for it to return, asked for something to stop only for it to happen again after a minute, all the ordinary miscommunications that might have contributed to a depressive 15 months of not being able to be touched without my body seizing with panic, a phase that’s passed but that I’m still struggling to process. And — while agreeing that it’s not a competition — I say this having managed to reach the age of 42 without being raped or sexually assaulted. Yet.

What’s so beautiful about this show is that the woman’s body, Butler-Cole’s, is so present, magnetic, its curves, its sinuous grace, responding with subtle inflection to the voices that surround it. Look, admire, don’t touch. It’s not that fucking hard, is it? (Perhaps fucking is an ill-advised qualifier there.) She looks into the mirrors by turn, quizzical, sympathetic, draping an arm over one, leaning into another, seeing not herself reflected back but the image of another woman, another speaker, mirrors of each other.

And then the light bears down on the chair, and a man’s voice intrudes: by invitation, but no less disturbing for it. It belongs to one of the men who assaulted Butler-Cole: drunk, after a party, he felt lustful — his word, lustful — and so he came to Butler-Cole and began to kiss her, unzipped her sleeping bag to fondle her, pushed his fingers into her vagina hoping to excite her, and when she pushed his arm away did it again. A friend, being friendly, wanting to share desire. He talks of looking back on that night and feeling profound shame, and I think about not hating him, but I do.

It’s a feeling at odds with the emotions of the work; Butler-Cole encountered two of the speakers through the Forgiveness Project — an argument for, and collection of, personal testimonies that point towards dialogue and reconciliation, rather than revenge — and her emphasis is on healing, and the power of speaking out to support it. In a panel discussion after Sunday’s show at the Vault Festival, a woman in the audience asked whether the world really needs more stories of rape, whether they perpetuate violence rather than halting it. Butler-Cole, with more patience and calm than I would have been able to muster, pointed out that there’s a big difference between fictions that glamourise sexual violence and those in which people who have experienced it can talk about what happened and how it affected them, for years after, warping their lives. No one needs any more of the former. But still they keep being manufactured.

*

It’s nearly always men. That’s not an opinion or a viewpoint or a controversial statement for you to ponder, it is just a cold, hard fact — 95% of the people who do this are men.”

[Dennis Kelly, Girls & Boys]

Dennis Kelly is responsible for one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. Traverse, August 2005, After the End: a geeky, awkward man and a sparky, confident woman locked in a nuclear bunker, obvious within approximately eight minutes that he’s lying about there having been a terrorist attack outside, that he didn’t save her but kidnapped her, because he had no other way of getting her attention, dragging on for more than an hour after that presenting a pointless exercise in playing out the power dynamics between humans. No, scratch that: it was a specific choice to have a geeky, awkward man and a sparky, confident woman, Kelly was saying something particular about the ways in which male vulnerability combined with wounded pride will fester, that what will supporate from the wound of being left behind by society is violence, that women, under pressure, are no less capable of violence, of wielding power themselves. And it made me furious, because there was fundamentally nothing ethical about how Kelly was saying it.

Kelly does violence: that’s what made him so perfect as the writer of Matilda the Musical. He has an acute appreciation for — to slightly misquote a line in Girls & Boys — “this incomprehensible violence thing that we do”, and whether the manifestation is physical or emotional/mental, individual or systemic, an act of terrorism or a poisoned declaration of love is immaterial, because this isn’t about comparison either. Quoting Girls & Boys again, more accurately this time, it’s “all part of the same, well, male impulse”.

Girls & Boys is fantastic. Partly it’s so because Carey Mulligan is phenomenal: quick-witted, charming (hair drawn back, it’s clear how much work her cheekbones are doing), absolutely in control of every word, beat, cadence. Sixty-two pages of text and there were maybe three or four lines tops I could imagine being spoken another way. There’s a moment in the middle where her voice dips to say something and the temperature in the room dives with it. That kind of control.

In Lindsey Turner’s staging and Es Devlin’s design, Mulligan’s character is trapped in a variation on the nuclear bunker: a cold blue rectangle in which, dressed like autumn, she tells the story of a life drained of colour by that predominately male impulse for violence, how she has to carry on living after he takes back control. Because that’s what all the violence I’ve been writing about so far is about, isn’t it? Control. The exercise of power. The use of brute force to gain or retain it. A rumbling misgiving I have about the play is that the characters are working class, as if middle-class people are too nice and civilised to resort to such brutality. Bullshit.

If I think Girls & Boys is fantastic none the less, it’s also because Kelly has had a long, hard think about what the world really needs a white man to be saying right now, and decided that “take back control” really isn’t it. At the heart of the play is an interlude — in the text it’s printed in brackets — in which the woman describes an:

“obscure academic who for the past 25 years had been working out a system that would make it harder for men to gain power. The whole thing was based on one underlying assumption — that society has been created for men: to enable men, to empower men, for men to run and for men to tend. And yet any objective look at our world would have to conclude that men are, in general, absolutely cocking awful at being in power: in general.”

Inevitably, the story ends with the (male) academic trying to fuck her.

Those words “in general” come up a lot in this play — because another thing Kelly knows the world doesn’t need white men saying right now is #NotAllMen. In his otherwise spectacularly misjudged review, which might as well end with that very hashtag, Michael Billington makes the astute point that while the woman’s daughter plays constructive games, all the son’s games are destructive: breaking the pottery, flinging food around the floor. But what Kelly is up to in those domestic scenes is slightly more subtle than that conveys. The girl uses diplomacy, argues her case, is prepared to reason; the boy just makes a mess, enjoys finding ways to be in charge of a situation, and watches as women tidy up after him. To what extent are parents, schools, reinscibing — reifying even — that system that empowers men right from birth, in how they talk to children, how they play with them, how they interact with their imaginations? It’s a question I struggle with daily.

Arguably what the world needs right now is for white men to shut the fuck up and listen. I’m interested in the ways in which Kelly’s text is an attempt at considering the ethics of his own control of the narrative of violence, and an attempt at listening, to a female voice, talking about toxic masculinity. She doesn’t use those words, nor I suspect would she describe herself as a feminist, but that’s what this play is really thinking about. As I’ve been writing this, a (male) friend in the US sent me an email containing the following line:

How do we continue in a world with abusers and cops and directors and they all have pricks and guns?

Lela, Butler-Cole, the women’s voices in Foreign Body, Mulligan’s character: they’re all telling us how.