Pros: Clever and dynamic, with great interplay between the performers.
Cons: Shows poor judgement in its consideration of cause and effect.
Scarlet opens with a striking tableau vivant. Four young women, wearing not much more than underwear, are lounging on an unmade bed, on a plinth in the middle of the stage. Once the lights go down, we’re straight into a discussion of the women’s sexual histories. But different women seem to be contributing to the same story, and then one of the women pretends to be the man in the story, jumps up and snogs one of the others. I’ll admit, I’m confused, but as the mists clear, it becomes apparent that the actors are taking turns to play Scarlet, as well as all the supporting characters in her story.
Scarlet is in her second year of university. There are clues in the script and the presentation that lead us to believe she is good looking, smart and popular. She is also unapologetically promiscuous, and tends to get wasted on a night out. On one such night she is the unwitting subject of a compromising video, which is subsequently published on Facebook and goes viral. The play looks at Scarlet’s response to the humiliating aftermath of this event, its effect on her life, and the motivation of those involved.
By having all four actresses play Scarlet, the play shines a light on the different facets of her personality: reckless, loving, fearful, sexy, confident, and so on. The conceit really comes into its own during the climax of the play, when we can see how she is torn between conflicting impulses; it also, I suppose, seeks to paint her as a sort of Everywoman. However, Jade Ogugua, the first actress to speak a line as Scarlet, established herself in my mind as the Scarlet. Whilst I understood that the other three were also playing Scarlet, and were doing so very well, Jade had immediately become the embodiment of the character for me. Under the direction of Joe Hufton, all four powerfully convey the horror and anguish that follow online violation, and the raw fear of real-life violation; the final scenes are uncomfortably, but appropriately tense.
Revenge porn is an important topical issue, as are the play’s other themes of violence against women and society’s double standards on sexual behaviour; it is a thought-provoking piece, and full of moral ambiguity. I certainly felt uncomfortable about some of the play’s conclusions and omissions, which can best be summed up by saying that it felt sanitised and even, at times, titillating. Yes, Scarlet’s bed is crumpled. Yes, we know she vomits in her room and has sex in disabled loos. But really, what we’re shown is four beautiful, shapely women wearing sexy underwear that doesn’t sag, or look grey, or dig into overhanging flesh. Likewise, Lydia Denno’s elegant set is all clean, sharp, monochrome, and lovely to look at, but contributes to this sense that the really grubby bits have been edited out. Lucy Kilpatrick gives a great performance as the runtish Will – the only character here who really could not cut it on the set of Friends – but it’s not enough to deliver the sordidness that’s missing from a treatment of these topics.
This is a clever and stylish play that manages to shock, even as it lightens its subject matter with sharp, topical one-liners. The performers are consistently excellent, and it’s a good-looking production. But it feels like the coffee table book of sexual harassment, and the moral of the story seemed to me a little simplistic and misguided.
Author: Sam H. Freeman
Director: Joe Hufton
Producer: Theatre Renegade
Booking until: 9th May 2015
Box office: 020 7407 0234
Booking link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-little/scarlet/