Athena Stevens doesn’t shy away from awkward questions or shock tactics to get her message across in her play, Schism, which has just opened at London’s Park Theatre after a successful run, two years ago, at the Finborough in Earl’s Court.
The two-hander, in which she stars with Jonathan McGuinness, is astonishingly frank. One key scene is hard to watch while another is so sudden and ferocious that it takes the audience a few seconds to digest what they’ve witnessed.
Some of the dialogue, too, makes you sit up and think. Most of us take so much for granted that we don’t always appreciate how others live.
Stevens has created a play about power – who has it and why, how it shifts from one person to another and power plays between a couple.
Along the way it tackles violence, insecurity, Machiavellian control and nature of relationships between two people.
The outspoken playwright uses the programme notes to attack theatres, their designers, directors, audiences and the critics who reviewed the play the last time around.
It’s such an intimidating diatribe that I’m fearful of including something in this review that will add to her ire.
The problem is that she sees its message as being one thing while the rest of us pick up on something else. So Athena, my apologies, in advance.
She didn’t like earlier reviews of the play from its time at the Finborough saying that a lot of (male) critics and theatre-goers missed the point of the drama.
But, try as she might to shift its emphasis, they had a point. There’s no getting away from the fact that Schism is a play about an inspirational young woman who triumphs over social expectations and discrimination.
However it is also a story about a woman whose single-mindedness to succeed, in a world which is against her, results in a vicious and unexpected backlash from the very person closest to her.
Harrison, a man in his 50s living in a shabby bachelor pad, is charged with narrating the story into an old fashioned cassette recorder – we never find out why.
He’s angry, bitter and resentful, furious that his protege is now claiming credit for designing an award-winning building which had been one of his designs.
But Harrison never got it built. He never even got it off the drawing board. He is one of life’s defeatists, giving up at the first hurdle and accepting second best because it is the easy option.
Unable to find work after graduating as an architect he throws away years of training and spends the rest of his career as a maths teacher at a Chicago high school.
Flash back 20 years and it’s a dark stormy night. He’s downing pills with the intention of killing himself – again we never discover why – when he looks around to find that a 14-year-old girl from his school has broken into his apartment.
Katherine (Stevens) wants his help. She has been put into a special ed class “And I’m not stupid”. She wants him to get her out.
He not only gets her out but, with the help of private tuition, helps her graduate and secure a place at university.
The dynamic between them slowly shifts over the years. She never relied on him, fiercely maintaining her independence, but he bullied and badgered her into pushing herself through – and beyond – any obstacles she faced. Now he’s terrified of losing her.
He tells her that he’s not interested in her sexually (thank god, we all think, considering she was just 14 when they met) but, over the years they do form a relationship of sorts but it’s never hearts and flowers.
Eventually her growing independence and success, in a profession that had rejected him, causes a rift that ends, unexpectedly, in violence.
In one scene he tries to get her to realise her limitations. It is an uncomfortable speech to listen to. He thinks that his honesty will make her see sense but it only makes her more determined.
Both McGuinness and Stevens are terrific in this thought-provoking drama but, considering its length (140 minutes) we don’t learn enough about either person.
We admire her ambition and determination but do we like her ruthlessness in using Harrison for her own ends? She comes to him as a teenager, late at night – where are her parents? Don’t they care where she is?
And how on earth did she manage to break in? And why? Couldn’t she have rung the bell or knocked on the door?
And what of him? We learn nothing other than he’s volatile, a bit of an emotional neanderthal and lacking in resolve.
Stevens is rightly incensed at how the world treats her and the disabled generally – she has cerebral palsy – and a lot of that rage is expressed in Schism through its intensity and boldness.
A stunning, candid and compelling play that holds your attention throughout.
Running in the Park 90 until June 9.
Review: Athena Stevens’ Schism is a bold and candid two-hander about ambition, power and determination, played out over 20 years in a stormy relationship that is more Machiavellian than true romance.