Every once in a while a play turns up which has something special to offer. Sometimes it's simply great acting, or a novel idea, or a different take on a subject that's already been done to death. 'Extremities' is one of those shows, an evening of theatre you're not likely to forget in a hurry, thanks to an astonishingly realistic fight scene, terrific ensemble acting, and a staggeringly fine script.
The subject is rape. American playwright William Mastrosimone wrote this play after talking with a rape victim. His programme notes make for harrowing reading as he recounts how the victim's case went to trial but resulted in the rapist being acquitted. Later, he confronted her on the courthouse steps with a warning that he intended attacking her again. 'Extremities' was first produced off Broadway in 1982, and a film version was produced in 1986.
It's an ordinary morning. Marjorie is listening to the radio and getting herself ready for the day. Her flatmates, Terry and Pat, have gone to work. Suddenly, Marjorie is stung by a wasp. She kills it with fly spray. Just to make sure it's dead, she holds a cigarette over it. But then, equally suddenly, the front door bursts open and a man walks in. At first he's full of excuses about why he's there, but as he closes in on Marjorie we know exactly what he has in mind. And, within seconds, he has Marjorie on the floor and is smothering her into compliance with a cushion. However, in the struggle which follows, Marjorie is able to grab the fly spray and spray it in the attacker's eyes. Now the tables are turned, and Marjorie is able to bind her attacker and imprison him in the fireplace. When her flatmates return, you would think it was simply a question of phoning the police to get the intruder arrested. Not so. The flatmates have their own views about how things will turn out and what should be done, and, even in this desperate situation, there's still room for petty accusations. And while this is going on, the perpetrator tries to manipulate events to secure his freedom.
This play simply wouldn't work if the fight scene at the beginning of the play wasn't totally realistic and believable. But it does because it is. The fight direction by Lewis Penfold couldn't be better, but the execution of the attack by John Schumacher as Raul, and Angela Bull as Marjorie is astonishingly good. It's incredibly tense and scary, yet compelling, even if it's also very uncomfortable to witness.
Rob Stuart's meticulous direction provides great pacing and staging. I particularly enjoyed the choice of topics for the radio interviews and the buzzing wasp which covers the scene changes. Nice touches. My only reservation was whether there should have been an interval. In one sense, the interval broke the tension and the flow, but at the same time it also gave the audience and cast some much-needed respite. However, the show picks-up after the interval at exactly the same moment in time where it broke off, so it didn't actually affect the momentum too much. A fine cast tackle a difficult subject and equally difficult staging with amazing confidence. John Schumacher brilliantly portrays the fast-talking, Liverpudlian attacker whose gift for manipulation almost reaches the heights of an art-form. Angela Bull is superb as victim Marjorie, defining a capable and intelligent woman whose luck is fortunately matched by her ability to recognise it. There's terrific support from Hannah Dean as the reticent Terry who seems to care more about her job than what Marjorie has gone through until she reveals her own nightmare experience. And Kas Darley is the reasonable and sensible Pat, who wonders who the victim really is until the denouement.
Jessamy Willson-Pepper's set, obviously designed on a fringe budget, is nevertheless almost perfect to describe a flat-share with three young women whose material aspirations are not nearly matched by their income. But the leather sofa, curved Scandinavian chair, the wooden fireplace surround and plants in the kitchen do more than enough to suggest a feminine, low-rental home.
Like all great drama – and this is definitely great drama – there are times when the audience can't help but laugh. Partly, it's to do with nerves of course, but it's also to do with great writing which senses moments that, even in the midst of incomprehensibly dreadful events, funny things can happen. For example, when Raul is feeling sick, he tells the women he can't vomit because he 'doesn't want to ruin your lovely carpet'. And when the flatmates decide to fetch antidote from the chemists, it's victim Marjorie who has to cough-up the cash - a stoke of writing genius.
Crimes against the person are always insidious, but rape has life-changing consequences for the victim. Not only do they suffer the immediate brutality of the actual attack, they must re-live it during police enquiries, in open court, with friends and relatives, and partners. Then, with all that behind them, they have to live with the possibility that their attacker may return. 'Extremities' doesn't cover all the ground about this terrible crime, but it does raise issues which might help us to better understand what rape victims have to endure. In addition, it's riveting, unmissable drama.