This is a terrible story, awful in its ordinariness, cataclysmic in its life-transforming horror. It is narrated by a woman alone, in a tone that is measured, lucid, even funny, and it is about women, men and violence. Specifically, male violence – the violence that’s in the water we swim in, the air we breathe, that lies at the rotten bases of our warped power structures. We teach women to fear it, to please and placate, to keep themselves out of harm’s way or risk paying the price. We teach men to dominate, to appropriate, to seize what they are raised to believe is rightfully theirs. Dennis Kelly’s play, arriving at a moment in history where such truths are being spoken loudly and often, looks squarely and unblinkingly at male violence. That it is spoken by a woman wrests back some atom of the control that the killer it describes so badly wanted for himself. It is eviscerating, and it is quite brilliant.
In the United Kingdom, critics avoided naming the brutal act at the play’s heart. It seems reasonable now to reveal it here, so those who wish to avoid finding out should stop reading. The slow build, the accumulation of awful tension leads to the revelation by the woman, played with exquisite subtlety and control by Carey Mulligan, that her estranged husband murdered their two children. Kelly was partly inspired by Euripides’ Medea, although of course here the genders are reversed. And Lyndsey Turner’s production has the force, if not the form, of Greek tragedy. It’s ingeniously designed by Es Devlin. A bare aquamarine box morphs into a large, smartly appointed kitchen, in which occasional objects are picked out in bright colours. The effect is disorientating – at once familiar and strange – and as Mulligan, chic and barefoot in wide-legged trousers and a silk shirt, unfolds her tale, the dreamlike quality intensifies into scarcely imaginable nightmare.
Mulligan is effortlessly good company. She begins by recounting her first-ever meeting with her husband – at an Italian airport check-in, where he dealt with some aplomb with a pair of glamorous, entitled queue-jumpers – and she is wry, funny, coolly composed and quick-witted. Their relationship deepens, and she begins to build a career in the film industry, a feat that takes nerve and talent, especially for a working-class woman in a professional environment
dominated by the well-connected, polished and posh. Her husband’s business, meanwhile, starts to flounder. He becomes neglectful, then abusive, and eventually she leaves him. His brutal revenge is to stab their son and daughter to death.
Scattered along the tragic trajectory are scenes in which Mulligan tends to the children, Leanne and her younger brother Danny. They are invisible to us, and we realise, as the action unfolds, that they exist only in their mother’s memory. We see her frustration and occasional near-losses of temper, as well as her deep love and tenderness. And we see Leanne make pottery animals or construct skyscrapers from mud, and her brother delighting in destroying them. The language is relaxed, almost bantering, but gradually we become aware of how much of it – how much of our normal, everyday discourse – employs violent imagery. She speaks of wanting to kill someone, or to cut someone else up into tiny pieces. Her husband calls her “bitch.” There’s nothing shocking or unusual in any of that, but the more we sense that something is deeply wrong, the more it jars, pointing up how desensitised to it we normally are.
Yet there is a refusal ever to yield to hysteria here that gives the play its steely power. Family annihilation, we’re calmly told, happens every 10 days in the United Kingdom. Ninety-five percent of the people who do it are men. And cases have doubled in number since 2002. Anyone who believes gender and violence are unrelated is deluded. This play is a reasoned, gripping, devastating demand that we face those facts – and that we think clearly and hard about where the hell we go from here.