Masterpieces

Sarah Daniels
Papercut Theatre and Joe Prentice in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre

Edward Killingback, Olivia Darnley and Nicholas Cass-Beggs Credit: Bill Prentice
Tessie Orange-Turner as Yvonne Credit: Bill Prentice
Rob Ostlere, Tessie Orange-Turner, Olivia, Darnley, Edward Killingback, Sophie Doherty, and Nicholas Cass-Beggs Credit: Bill Prentice

The sexual abuse of women in the 1980s generated a good deal of debate about the part played by pornography in the sexualised and sometimes violent treatment of women.

Sarah Daniels’s engaging polemical drama Masterpieces written in 1983 takes the character Rowena (Olivia Darnley) on a journey of political awakening to the dangers of pornography, the naïve complicity in its effects of the men closest to her, the double standards of the courts and the sexist idiocy of psychiatry.

It also takes her to a court case in which a woman is accused of deliberately pushing a man under a tube train at Finsbury Park.

But the court scenes are brief and have an expressionistic tilt in a play whose overall style is Brechtian, its characters provocative, believable voices of aspects of a controversy and the play itself a trial of pornography and power.

The play opens with three men calmly telling us about its value as if they were witnesses in a documentary. The porn Baron (Edward Killingback) describes it as a growing industry “run by ordinary nice people.”

The Peddler (Rob Ostlere) says it “enrich(es) people's... romantic lives,” and is “the practical side to sex therapy.”

The consumer (Nicholas Cass-Beggs) argues that “looking at pictures never hurt anyone.”

All that is brought into question by the experience of three couples who in the next scene are shown socialising as the men trade jokes about the way women enjoy being raped.

Only Yvonne (Tessie Orange-Turner) expresses distaste and she later in her role as schoolteacher is to help convict a schoolboy of rape and learn from his mother about the lad’s secret hoard of pornography.

The pacing of scenes is fast helped by the uncluttered, simple, effective stage design of Verity Quinn in which back walls are plastered with colourful porn magazine covers that we can just identify behind hanging layers of thick plastic sheets that remind you of its still-furtive existence.

An impressive cast of six actors play multiple parts with the woman’s prosecutor being the same actor who in the role of employer earlier raped his vulnerable employee a single mother.

there are particularly strong performances from Rob Ostlere as Yvonne 's Jack the Lad husband Ron, and Tessie Orange-Turner as the single mother Hilary.

The only defence raised by the woman tried for murder is to point to cases where men have killed women and got away with it because women were supposedly to blame.

While the jury is out, the accused sits with a policewoman and, in a short, upsetting monologue, describes seeing a film in which a film directoris shown first abusing a woman and then while the woman is still alive cutting and ripping her body apart.

And in case we think this important play has nothing to say about the sexual abuse of women by powerful men in the twenty-first century, we should check out the stories being thrown up by the #MeToo movement.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna