Violence and Son, by Gary Owen, has given me 24 hours of full brain gymnastics. It turns up another secret or question or punch to the face every time it ticks back through my thoughts. Teach it in every single school now.
The eponymous Son is Liam - a quick-witted but awkward 17-year-old Doctor Who obsessive, who, after losing his mum, has to move in with a dad he barely knows. That's Rick - also known as Violence. He owns a pair of flying fists, an endless supply of cans of Fosters, and is 'getting it on tap twenty-four-seven' from his girlfriend Suze. Mixed up in all of this is Liam's friend Jen, who he thinks he might be in love with. How she feels is less clear, but she definitely likes him enough to go to a Doctor Who convention with him dressed up as Amy Pond.
It's a play that is deeply concerned with the tragic inadequacy of the family. The Anna Karenina rule, 'they fuck you up your mum and dad', even every episode of Eastenders, will tell you that the idea of family in practice can be a lot more complicated than the idea in theory. The mildew-gathering garden chairs that seat some of the audience suggest a parent's good intentions made in earnest and then forgotten about, Rick distracted by the sound of a can hissing open, a domestic unit not being maintained.
When Rick's propensity for violence becomes clear, Jen encourages Liam to leave for his own safety. But this advice isn't feasible - where else can a seventeen-year-old go exactly? The fact that family can be an economic necessity without providing proper emotional stability is clearer than ever. Liam needs this roof - but it's also trapping him in an environment where he is under constant threat from both physical and emotional violence.
For Rick, life is a series of physical encounters; it's either his fist or his dick hitting something hard. When he eggs Liam on to make a move on Jen, he's unsurprisingly unconcerned about whether Jen can offer Liam the things he'd need for a supportive loving relationship. She's just 'a hole to shoot into'.
Liam, now as rootless as figure as his hero Doctor Who, is played with such tenderness and likability by David Moorst that you gun for him all the way with a keen sense of sympathy and affection. But something happens at the end that leaves us shattered, re-assessing everything.
Jen doesn't initially appear to be as forlorn a figure as Liam. She's pretty, confident and her boyfriend's a rugby player. But barely hidden is an engrained sense that her validity as a person is determined by whether men find her sexually attractive. Her and her boyfriend don't even talk to each other - they just have sex and watch TV. It seems to her Liam is different, but it remains the same: he wants to sleep with her. There's a devastating sense of futility and disappointment in Jen's sense that is ultimately what all men want from her. But still she tells Liam 'I liked the idea that you liked me'. She's been hardwired to believe that's what matters.
She's had a lifetime of trying to shrink herself from men's spaces, inherited from other women - when offered more food, she says that she shouldn't, and then chastises herself for sounding like her mum. When she talks about getting felt up in the pub, Liam tells her not to go there - she must remove herself from the space.
When Liam and Jen do sleep together, there's an awkwardness about the morning after. We feel a warm sense of triumph and pity for him - the geek got the girl! But he probably shot his load in about 30 seconds!
But then Owen takes us through dramatic acrobats, as Jen slowly begins to suggest that she told him to stop, but he carried on. As the discourse around these things always goes, Liam hits back with disbelief, before putting the onus on her to have stopped him. But unlike when Liam was beaten up by Rick, and Jen replies, 'He said it, I believe him', there is no accepting of Jen's version of events here.
The skill of Owen's writing and Moorst's performance puts us into a position where we find ourselves struggling to believe that Liam could really rape Jen. It's a demonstration not only of a reflex to blame the woman, but of the often classist assumption that violence towards women is only inflicted by men with tattoos and drink problems. But there are signs, not overt, but signs all the same, of Liam's subtly engrained sense of superiority over women throughout. From the very first scene, he starts mansplaining Doctor Who to Jen: 'it's shit because you don't understand it'. He talks of how he knew his mum wouldn't want her photo taken as she lay dying in hospital, but wanting to possess one last thing from her, he took them as she slept without her knowing.
These are lives defined by silences. Suze wants Jen to stop talking, stop questioning. Rick doesn't apologise. No one talks to Liam about losing his mum. And ultimately, the play ends in not just an attempt to silence Jen through violence, but Liam too - in order to maintain his status, he must not just be complicit in shutting her up, he must shut up too.
Violence and Son seems to suggest that this silencing won't get us very far - we need to have a new conversation about violence and where it comes from. We need to understand it before we stop it. Liam's action comes from a patchwork of tangled messages about his role as a man, given to him by Rick, the writers of Doctor Who, and the rest of the world - but here remains the most difficult question: does empathy mean apology?