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theatre

little scratch – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Rebecca Watson’s extraordinary novel is stunningly staged by Miriam Battye and Katie Mitchell, in a production which embodies a book set within a mind

Eve Ponsonby, Eleanor Henderson, Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá and Ragevan Vasan in little scratch

There is something a little uncanny about seeing little scratch on stage. Rebecca Watson’s brilliant novel – my favourite of 2021 – follows the often simultaneous and overlapping thoughts of a woman, over a single Friday in London, in the wake of a traumatic event. Set within the confines of a mind, the book probes at what it means to exist within a body – a fact of existence which is sometimes horrifying. To put such a text on a stage though means giving these themes a literal body – or bodies. Miriam Battye’s adaptation is largely faithful, its most radical deviation being the choice to dramatise the unnamed protagonist’s mental processes with four actors – four voices, not one.

Yet in Katie Mitchell’s focused staging, the overall effect remains peculiarly disembodied. Four actors stand in a line in front of microphones, as if they are about to record a radio play. Watching the play, though, is not quite the same as only listening – and not just because of the inherently theatrical experience of sitting in an audience. Though there is none of the complex microphone choreography present in Marek Horn’s recent play Yellowfin, the subtlest of gestures and interactions with the amplification feel radical in light of little scratch’s muted aesthetic. Hand positions – tugging at a sleeve or clutched to one’s chest – feel fraught with emotion.

For a lot of the performance, it felt as if the actors were channelling something. In part, they channel a faithful rendering of Watson’s extraordinary source text, attempting to lose as little of its precision and nuance as possible as they transfer it to the stage. But there is something more elemental at work too. Though rendered with four actors, they are all giving voice to one self – though a self which is alienated from itself by trauma and the grind of contemporary work. The effect is almost like Samuel Beckett’s Not I, the disembodied gaping mouth alienated from its body and self. On the page, the overlapping scattered text seemed to represent the sensory simultaneity of the city, our constant mental stimulation, and inner emotional lives. Interior and exterior blurred in perception. Emails arrived with the same on-the-page grammar as her intrusive thoughts. Here, the four individual bodies give the appearance more of a split personality – though not in a literal or schlocky way, but as a representation of the different competing selves and impulses contained within us. We navigate our way onto trains, in the informal queue and in through the doors thinking about the workday ahead, while a part of us – angrier than we’d like to admit – craves the comfort of a seat. ‘Seat. Seat. SEAT!’

While seeing little scratch given corporeal form is in some ways surprising, there is an inherent theatricality to the original novel that should not be overlooked. Arguably, it is so effective as a novel because it imports textual innovations of drama to another medium. Its layout on the page could be an experiment of Caryl Churchill, and (perhaps mostly directly) resembles the fragmented layout of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. (Indeed, Watson cites Kane as an influence in the programme.) Its rush of sensory stimuli even reminded me of Churchill’s depiction of the experience of dying in Act 2 of Here We Go.

Perhaps most of all, I was reminded of Alistair McDowall’s terrific one act play all of it. Staged in early 2020, it is surely too recent to have been an inspiration, but they share some interesting affinities. Both examine the lives of women (over the course of a day and a life respectively), and use jangling single-word phrases like ‘rushing’ and ‘red’ to describe waking, commuting, and birth. Though brief, McDowall’s play lodged in my mind to such an extent that when I read little scratch at the start of this year, I imagined it performed with the same drive and pace of Kate O’Flynn’s break-neck, heart-rending performance. In Mitchell’s staging though, the pace is a little slower – and Watson too opts for something less hectic in the audiobook.

Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá and Ragevan Vasan in little scratch

Watson calls the play a ‘true sister’ to the book, and the adaptation is certainly faithful. Writing in Exeunt, Brendan Macdonald suggests that the stage adaptation ‘gives the appearance of experimentalism within the medium, but actually in its substance is rooted in heavily conventional practices’. Perhaps this is more of a comment on the marketing of the book, rather than any claims the text or Watson make themselves. It is probably true that little scratch is the first work of pure hybrid fiction that has attained wide popular success (and, of course, continued life in a stage adaptation) in a while. Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny were maybe the last major entries to this informal canon.

Yet I would argue that – as surprising as the form will be to many readers – the true innovation of Watson’s novel is its fashioning of older forms into something remarkably contemporary. Watson consciously situates herself within a modernist lineage; why else would she set the novel on a single day in June – like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses before it? (Woolf is also named as an influence by Watson.) Yet compared to Clarissa Dalloway’s leisure, and her slow passage along Bond Street to buy flowers, Watson’s protagonist is flung headlong into a rush of work tasks, sensory over-stimulation, and relationship worries – all overshadowed by trauma. For Watson, there seems to be a link between the long, flowing sentences of early 20th century stream-of-consciousness fiction and the angular contemporary hybrid fiction of little scratch; both attempt to represent thought as it is. Yet in the modern day, multiple streams exist within the mind at once, the attention span shortened, all underscored with anxiety.

One by-product of the staging is that you begin to notice the almost imperceptible differences between each of actors, and how they take on slightly different roles. It is almost as if they represent various parts of the character’s psyche – delineated a little more clearly than on the page. The book had a rough organisational pattern in columns, but these would regularly shift and change position. On stage, each voice is contained within a discrete body. There is a trace of the all of it-style piece which little scratch could have become, in Eve Ponsonby’s (arguably leading) role. She certainly provides much of the character’s most conscious thought, and seems to have the most dialogue. Though little scratch would work as a monologue, the resulting loss of the simultaneity would detract from the overall effect and Battye and Mitchell’s bold choice pays off considerably.

Thus the script’s main authorial and editorial interventions, beyond some canny trimming, are in the distribution of the various streams of consciousness. As well as designating Ponsonby’s role as voicing most cognisant, deliberately thought thoughts, there are other underlying patterns. Eleanor Henderson often represents irrepressible feelings which lurk beneath the banality of her daily tasks. Bad puns and innuendos spill out, but also there is the pervasive, irrepressible sense of ‘dread’ which Mitchell’s production conveys so well – aided by the scrapy strings of Melanie Wilson’s superb sound score. Ragevan Vasan, perhaps a little conventionally as the only man in the cast, lends his voice to the male characters, as well as public announcements. Yet these are filtered through the wittily overfamiliarity of the protagonist’s mind: ‘If you see something that doesn’t look right […] sea it, suet, sautéd.’

Seeing all four actors together is to witness a propulsive, dazzling display of intricate choreography, recalling Mitchell’s 2017 production Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court. Performed in three simultaneous time streams, Alice Birch’s play was rehearsed to a click track, and I wouldn’t be surprised if little scratch has been too, given the tightly interlocked dialogue. You can certainly see why Katie Mitchell was compelled to stage it, formally as well as thematically.

Eve Ponsonby in little scratch

When I read little scratch, I felt that one of the effects its form was to itemise the stuff of everyday life in such a way that every action and interaction seemed, through some inexorable gravitational pull, dragged within the realm of work. little scratch sits (I would say at the forefront) of a burgeoning new genre of workplace novel in contemporary fiction. Eloise Hendy recently called them ‘burnout books’ – fiction which dramatises the exhaustion of labour, especially mental exhaustion. Other notable examples of this genre, I would suggest, include Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. (As this list indicates, it appears to be a genre currently contributed to by women in particular.) Yet little scratch’s protagonist is not – predominantly, at least – crushed by the daily grind of her job, but by the sexual assault she has suffered, perpetrated by her boss. Indeed, as Watson noted in an interview with Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in The Guardian, ‘The office routine is something that she relies on to essentially suppress the assault’.

Yet work permeates every aspect of little scratch,an insidious presence, mutating her interactions with the world – even how she processes the assault. The suppression itself seems traumatising. Watson’s distinctive form is not only an attempt to express unmediated thought in language, but shows how every action has ended up as an itemised task she is expected to perform – by her job, by her boyfriend, by the rules governing social etiquette, or by her inner neuroses. Everything from brushing one’s teeth, to commuting, to reading emails, to buying soup, to cycling home, to attempting to tell one’s boyfriend about one’s sexual assault are, as a result, placed on a continuum of labour and described in the language of work. It is there from the very beginning of little scratch; moments after waking, the protagonist realises that she has ‘got to do this thing again, the waking up thing, the day thing, the work thing, the disentangling from my duvet thing, this is something, this is a thing I have to do then’.

In the mind of the protagonist, everything is task – micromanaged by her own self-policing. The inner monologue has mutated from the free-flowing modernist stream-of-consciousness of Virginia Woolf, say, into splintered shards of internalised time management. The self is almost robotic, automated by the demands of the capitalist system which she has internalised. Here, I was also reminded of McDowall again; his protagonist’s adult life is rendered with the crushing repetition of ‘Driving to work’, over and over – redolent of Watson’s ‘pedalling pedalling’ and ‘rush rush rush’. The commute seems emblematic of a life half-lived, a time of clinging on, stuck in a liminal space, waiting for life to resume. (Despite this, the novel and play are never an exercise in monotony. Watson’s canny plotting alleviates this possibility in subtle ways – such as the decision for the character getting the train to work, where she has left her bike behind the day before, so she can cycle home. Thus, we experience two types of commute through the protagonist’s eyes.)

The 1983 book The Managed Heart saw Arlie Russell Hochschild introduce the now-ubiquitous term ‘emotional labour’. At the time, she meant for it to describe some very specific (and very often gendered) demands made by paid employment. Aeroplanes proved to be a particularly relevant site of gendered emotional labour, with female flight attendants expected to manage the emotions of passengers – compared to the invisible authority of the usually male pilots. Men were expected to manage their emotions in some jobs too, such as in the case of security guards – whose bodies are the last line of defence between a would-be thief and someone else’s property. Nowadays, we might also point to the emotional labour of digital moderators, scouring social media sites to find, review and take down offensive, violent and sexual content, with little therapeutic support provided.

Yet Hochschild’s term has grown far beyond her intentions – and against her wishes. In 2018, she publicly stated that housework does not count as emotional labour under her definition – an implicit rebuttal of many feminists’ instincts to widen (in Hochschild’s view, dilute) its scope. Yet despite her detractions, from the publication of The Managed Heart feminists saw the potential and value in expanding the meaning of ‘emotional labour’. Hochschild was writing around the height of the Wages of Housework campaign, which argued for the classification of domestic tasks as labour in order to give them a statutory salary. Hochschild’s delineation of labour as something done during a job has also become increasingly unfixed. The rise of the zero-hours contract and the gig economy, and latterly the pandemic, have seen the lines of home and work blur – as the widespread availability of mobile phones and the Internet did before that. Every new wave of technological development has ushered in further ways for work to saturate our lives.

What Watson’s formal innovations seem to embody is this stealth invasion of our mental processes by work-logic – of tasks and deadlines and procrastination. I was struck not only by the emotional charge of the protagonist’s attempt at disclosing her assault, but how this too seemed to enter the realm of work. little scratch almost implicitly asks, should disclosure of rape be considered a form of emotional labour? She delays and puts off telling her boyfriend like it’s a work task, the novel building to a moment of aborted disclosure. The central character summons up her courage on the bike ride home, before arriving at her boyfriend’s home and deciding not to say anything – at least for that night. You sense that this is a cycle that will reoccur over and over.

Katie Mitchell and Miriam Battye in the rehearsal room of little scratch

The novel is often misidentified as a roman-à-clef testimony of sexual violence and Watson has repeatedly had to state in interviews that the book is a work of fiction. It emerged from creating the character’s voice first, rather than choosing sexual violence as a theme or attempting to express something directly personal. (The book actually began with the scene in which she is asked what she’s read recently and suddenly cannot think of any books she has ever read in her life.) The events described are not untypical – a point made in little scratch when she googles sexual assault statistics, an act of ‘confirming ordinariness’. Yet this misidentification does perhaps speak to something in contemporary literary culture – partly a widespread expectation that writing by women is restricted in focus on the domestic or autobiographical, but also an incorrect assumption of genre. little scratch was seemingly identified with other recent cultural contributions – such as Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You – which attempt to process their creators’ sexual assault in the making of the art. Yet though little scratch is not part of this emerging contemporary genre of post-MeToo feminist testimony, it certainly seems in conversation with it – even engaged in an implicit critique of the cultural pressures it exists within.

The initial gesture of #MeToo was participatory. In October 2017, Alyssa Milano asked women ‘who have been sexually harassed or assaulted’ to reply ‘Me too’ to her tweet, as Tarana Burke had done previously on MySpace in 2006. It was an invitation for women to acknowledge publicly (but semi-anonymously, disclosing no further details) that violence had been perpetuated against them by men. It enacted a version of the allegations prominently levelled at Harvey Weinstein earlier that month, showing that such violence was typical of systemic, misogynistic abuse rather than one bad apple. The #MeToo gesture in 2017 arguably inaugurated a new mode of public confession, which typified many women’s loss of faith in the police in tackling sexual violence.

A moment in Episode 5 of I May Destroy You seems emblematic of this gesture. On stage, at a reading of her work, Coel’s character Arabella announces that ‘Zain Tareen is a rapist’, doxing him for ‘stealthing’ (the non-consensual removal of a condom, an act which legally and morally amounts to rape). It’s a powerful moment – yet not one which Coel presents as an unequivocal good. It leads to Arabella becoming somewhat reliant upon online praise for her self-esteem, while this disclosure does not result in restitution. Coel reveals later on that Zain retains his book contract and merely publishes under a pseudonym. Yet little scratch seems in conversation with this post-#MeToo image of accusation, exposing another side to what has become a bleak commonplace in the news – that the act of revealing one’s sexual assault is fraught with immense personal difficulty.

Eve Ponsonby and Eleanor Henderson in little scratch

The driving force of the last half hour of little scratch is her final main task of the day: telling her boyfriend what has happened to her. As Hochschild describes the air stewardess’ need to manage the emotions of a difficult customer, little scratch’s protagonist needs to manage the emotions of her boyfriend, on top of her own. The central character caught between the social pressure (perhaps even a sense of feminist duty) to disclose and the appalling impossibility of giving the events words. In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel argues that this ‘incitement to discourse’ (a phrase used more generally by Foucault) creates a pressure to speak that itself can be retraumatising – both in the case #MeToo-style public disclosure, and in the summons to testify in court.

In little scratch, is not that her boyfriend (‘my him’) is particularly antagonistic in any way. His relatively brief appearance in person (as well as his infrequent texts) shows him to be either busy or a little distant, but overall a sympathetic presence in her life. He would likely show her sympathy were she to tell him what happened – though how can you ever really tell how someone will react to such a thing? Yet this compassion could soon curdle into ‘pity pity pity’. In attempting to avoid this, she tries to fashion herself into being ‘unraped’, as she thinks she currently is in her boyfriend’s mind. Rather than divulging her boss’s actions, she and her boyfriend have sex, but she fails to climax – distracted by mental images of her attack. She chooses expediency, terrified that to deny sex in favour of a difficult conversation may put him off sex with her forever – expressed in the haunting question: ‘Will he still want to touch me?’

One the most striking moments in the novel and play is when she remembers her sexual awakening – where she suddenly felt part of something that was initially alien. We are probably not intended to read too much into the character’s association of asexuality with abnormality and feeling excluded – or at least, I hope not. little scratch’s melancholy horror instead seems largely based on the fear of losing one’s active sexuality (rather than the asexual experience of never having had it). Watson has talked about a social illiteracy in differentiating sex and rape, and this aspect feels at the heart of her theme. The feminist assertion that rape is not sex – though certainly true – is an epistemic separation, rather than a practical one. Trauma sustained in rape cannot simply be minimised in sex by a theoretical framework or mental delineation. Nor, as Watson’s protagonist imagines in detail, is another person’s perception of you so easily managed.

little scratch formally embodies the horror of being trapped in one’s mind – to no longer be able to identify with one’s body, as a response to trauma, and others’ well-meaning yet devastating changes in interactions with it. What she wants from her boyfriend is to be treated the same way, as if she is ‘unraped almost’. On stage, though embodied by actors, little scratch startlingly conveys this alienation. She is a voice with many voices, and the stage bodies that don’t seem quite there. There is something ghostly about their presences, especially when evening arrives in the story. Bethany Gupwell’s lighting almost imperceptibly dims, drawing us down into the character’s sleep with her. The figures on stage fade into greater obscurity and we squint to perceive them.

Ava Wong Davies wrote that the ‘extraordinary’ lighting at the end of the play ‘really carefully allows the full, cumulative weight of the piece to land.’ It is ‘overwhelming but you feel held, too’. Though the play’s themes are extremely confronting, there is an underlying kindness to little scratch that should be noted. It tries to be a space for processing trauma and fostering empathy at the same time and though I cannot speak to effective it has been for audiences (and it would certainly benefit from a readmission policy) there is an underlying generosity to it and care taken in presenting trauma in a way that minimises harm, while maximising effect. Unlike in the book, there is none of the difficulty of not knowing what order to read the text of little scratch in when it appears in the linear form of stage drama. Yet it also cannot simply be put down or paused – necessitating a far greater duty of care to its audience. Others may disagree, but I felt immensely comforted by the seriousness with which Battye, Mitchell, the cast and production team had taken this responsibility.

little scratch

Novel written by Rebecca Watson, Adapted for the stage by Miriam Battye, Directed by Katie Mitchell, Sound Score by Melanie Wilson, Lighting Design by Bethany Gupwell, Starring Morónkẹ́ Akinọlá, Eleanor Henderson, Eve Ponsonby, Ragevan Vasan
Reviewed 25th November 2021

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