Please note: this review contains spoilers for the play. The play contains scenes of sexual violence, murder, stalking and assault.
Duncan Graham’s play CUT begins with a warning from the solo performer on stage, a woman who is playing a flight attendant. It’s a warning you might usually expect from venue staff or a voice from the P.A. system. Turn mobile phones off. Cover watches that glow. Much of the production relies on true blackouts and this is as much about protecting the performer and the audience as it is about preserving the vision of the production.
But then she says, if the audience wants to leave at any time, they must put up their hand and yell out the safe word “CUT”. Cut, cut, cut. She repeats. And if you are to leave during the performance, you will not be welcomed back. And all of a sudden, what is ordinarily intended for audience safety and comfort turns sinister and rejects any notion of support.
I’m used to going to shows in black box spaces that have strict lockouts – you can’t enter after the show has begun and if you leave during the show, you can’t come back in. It makes sense. Some spaces are so small, leaving means you’d be close to interrupting the show. Putting the audience or the performers in danger.
Somehow, here, it sounds like a threat. And I’m immediately offside.
The play begins by hyper-focusing on the woman’s routine – getting ready to leave the house, putting “a face on her face” and getting through the city to the airport, ready to start her work.
Intercut with this theatrical procedural, we get flashes of insight into her off-work personality and her childhood and her dark fantasies.
On board the plane, a man with ash-black eyes is watching her. At first, she feels uncomfortable and then the attention gives her a little thrill. But once they land at the other end, he follows her. And follows her. And she keeps turning back to watch him gaining on her. And though she describes a threatening scene, the perceived level of threat appears to be less than her esteem boost.
CUT was first performed at Belvoir in 2011 and the later at Adelaide Fringe in 2015. The script dictates the opening warning and the lengthy full blackouts throughout the play. It wants to keep the audience on edge with its theatrical trickery.
But the text itself and its explicit suggestions that the woman is complicit in her own stalking and later attack is genuinely troubling. The playwright alludes to Greek myth and this is a revenge play, no question, but casting aspersions on a woman’s sanity and – as the ad copy on the theatre’s website says – suggesting the play “will leave you questioning where the danger really lies” makes the whole endeavour feel completely irresponsible.
The character of the nameless woman, we learn, has a tendency toward sociopathic behaviour, so the lines around intent are blurred early on. But it seems dangerous to take the lived experience of women all over the world – being harassed at work, stalked, assaulted and raped – and construct a narrative where she effectively lures the man into a trap just to be able to have that dish that’s best served cold. Putting an allusion to the Greek Fates into the play doesn’t make this Medea or Oresteia.
The production currently on stage at fortyfive downstairs is cohesive, but in the end, it’s all in service of a play that I find reductive and shallow. The rape scene is highly sexualised in way that implies consenting adults; even though the woman talks about kicking and fighting back, she seems to be enjoying the experience. It’s an ugly moment in the show. But it’s a deliberate choice, which is mind-boggling in 2023, when we have better language and ways to discuss consent, assault and stories of trauma than we did a decade ago.
I keep wanting to describe the woman as an unreliable narrator, but even though the narrative is non-linear, cut and reassembled, the woman tells us enough to put the pieces together. She tortured an animal as a child. She tripped a woman on a gravel path and laughed at her pain.
The play wants to confuse us and put us on edge, but in the end, even if the narrator isn’t lying to the audience, putting these questions at the centre of a play about assault and rape is too close to the reality of most victims of sexual assault – they are not believed.
Writing a play where the audience doubts the woman’s version of events is reckless. Choosing to produce it in a post-“Me Too” world is wild. Asking us to question “where the danger really lies” is absolutely shallow, given that in reality – the overwhelming victims of stalking are women, most women who are raped and murdered are the victim of their intimate partners, and it’s a rare case indeed that a woman lures a man into assaulting her just to get the kind of revenge that might satisfy the audience’s bloodlust.
The spiel at the start of the play feels like backlash to the deliberate posting of trigger warnings, something which had started to appear around the time when Belvoir first produced this show. This play doesn’t want to create a safe space or give you any resources after the show. For a show that relies heavily on tropes associated with the BSDM community (choking, blackouts, safe words, roleplay, power/control), the production cares little for after-care.
The twist in the narrative feels so constructed, that it’s divorced from reality. But, but, but, it’s a revenge play! She’s a Greek God enacting revenge! It’s a story about violence against women, written by a man, that wants us to doubt her and fear her. We should have moved beyond this kind of narrative by now. It’s appalling that we haven’t.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
CUT is playing until March 26th.
Special thanks to my partner for helping to edit this review. This was a tough one to find the words for.
I do not doubt your perception of what happens in the production but I propose that the inferences and conclusions are yours and not inherent in the work itself and I would certainly contend many of the implications you apply to certain elements of the narrative and the production.
I say this without malice but in defence of the work and of the entire production and creative team who have worked on this conscious of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
The social concerns you raise were and remain foremost in our minds. The fear and terror that women are forced to contend with is both real and perceived. The games that predators play create uncertainty and cause what is often described as 'irrational behaviour' (which is often targeted when such natters come to court) This so-called 'irrationality' is not complicity.
The trauma of stalking and sexual assault are not the same as flirtation and desire. There is a danger in reading initial interest and desire as complicity in being stalked and attacked. There is always a point where desire can turn into panic, initial interest can change to ‘No’. Confronting an attacker is not the same as consenting to be attacked. Fighting back is clearly not enjoyment. The reading you present is akin to blaming the victim for being out at night or for wearing a short dress and other such arguments.
Yes, the play is ambiguous (- does the ‘revenge’ even happen?) But we have been clear about our intention. So you can see that your interpretation concerns me.
Yes, there is a playful conceit in the opening announcement but there is no malice - it is there for safety and clarity about exiting in the darkness and the requirement to not re-enter. Yes, the character is not perfect, unlikeable even. This does not make her a sociopath (she is not the one who tortures the fish, she simply witnesses it).
There is no suggestion in the play or production of the woman’s complicity in being stalked, nor ‘luring’ her attacker, nor her consent to being attacked and most particularly not of enjoyment. These perceptions remain yours, as they are certainly not intended nor presented in the production.
Thanks for listening to my response, Laurence Strangio (director)
(I propose that any further discussion between us should be in person or in private.)