Why on earth was the house only half full last night at the Southwark Playhouse during the performance of Scarlet, a new play by Sam H. Freeman? Its theme, all around virtual bullying and the dimensions of womanhood, is so topical and leaves the audience with so many personal questions that I highly recommend this production.
Freeman makes a wonderful choice in letting the student Scarlet, his main character, be played by four actresses. In this way, Lucy Kilpatrick, Jade Ogugua, Heida Reid and Asha Reid reveal varying parts of the character’s personality, thoughts and fears. I’d definitely love to see this done again, perhaps with even more actors, and with a male character at the centre.
In the first act, Scarlet has had a few too many drinks on a night out, and is filmed falling over without panties on and discussing large penises with a couple of drunk men/boys. The next morning, the video is on Facebook and over the next days, the whole world seems to have seen and commented on it. It’s a scandal, her university environment becomes unbearable and she loses her boyfriend. After a few months, things seem to die down. But do they really? If a woman has been robbed of an image of her body and even of her speech, and that this could be used anytime on the infinite internet, is she ever safe?
In the explosive and superior act two, Scarlet has changed her name to Eleanor. She is now an “anonymous” Londoner with many friends, a fabulous boyfriend (Olly), everything seems to go her way, and her clothes are fashionable. However, she still doesn’t quite sleep normally, needs isolated time in her bed quite regularly, and is starting to receive mysterious texts again.
This production is finely directed. Joe Hufton leads his actresses around the space as if through different parts of Scarlet’s brain. Some parts light up and are active, and others aren’t. And vice versa. In Act One, the central bed begins naturally messy and hosts our four girls in underwear. Underwear is what all women have in common. It’s what is layered on top of it that is so varied. This brings forward the theme of the uniforms and masks that we all wear every day – these days they seem even more important to some, as everyone is always in possession of a camera.
This is particularly obvious in Act 2, when three actresses are wearing pastel colours and one is still wearing her party wear from Act 1. The latter is the reminder that the past cannot be escaped, while the play explains that confronting one’s past can take a lot of time. In this story, events happen over two years. Other stories take much longer.
Perhaps the reason I connected less with Act 1 was because I left university a few years ago, and that when I went to clubs back then, being caught on a camera was not really a fear. If I remember correctly, there was much more text on Facebook back then than there is now, with images taking over everything.
I was pleasantly surprised when I recognised the names of the music producers for this play, Benji Huntrods and Ed Burgon, who were in my theatre society when I studied in Newcastle. Their nightclub music, which reflected Scarlet’s sometimes confused states, were perfect and were well completed by Matt Leventhall’s lighting.
The cast was very strong, with the actresses switching between accents, characters and genders, especially Lucy Kilpatrick who beautifully brought out the comedy in dramatic moments and scared everyone in the room when playing Scarlet’s bully. This bully strangely reminded me of some of True Detective. I did feel irritated by some of the high pitched yelling, but wouldn’t we all yell this way in these kinds of fearful moments?
Finally, speaking of fear, I so enjoy plays that confront us with our own by bringing up topics that we hear about on the news or in politics. Last time I went to the Southwark Playhouse, it was to see How I learned to drive, about an uncle abusing his niece from a very young age. This was then echoed by The Nether, which took the theme of online paedophilia to a new and highly uncomfortable level. Tonight, I will see The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse about this year’s general elections in the UK. As the theme of online bullying and women’s ownership of their bodies is so present, I urge everyone to go to see Scarlet.