‘I’m revolting’. The first words uttered in Abi Zakarian‘s one-woman play, Fabric, are arresting, if not accurate. The speaker is Leah, as played by Nancy Sullivan, and Sullivan is anything but revolting, whatever Leah’s mother-in-law might think. From her high-octane entry, dancing with abandon to The Exciters’ Tell Him, Sullivan handles her role and the room with professional and personable ease. It is a performance you can trust and, within moments, she has forged an effortless bond with her audience, adding both to the sense of warmth we feel towards her during the lighter moments, and much pack to the show’s punch later on.
Zakarian’s premise is clear enough, if brutally so: the presentation of events leading up to, and the aftermath of, a rape. The build-up, by contrast, is gentle, introducing us to our protagonist through her revealing and endearing chatter. Zakarian and Sullivan make a great team when it comes to the creation and delivery of subtle – but snort-out-loud – one-liners, and the core triumvirate is ably completed by Tom O’Brien as the company’s director and dramaturg.
The seeming innocence of the early subject matter – how Leah met her husband in a shop, the depiction of their chastely romantic dates – is now and then belied, fleetingly at first, by the juxtaposition of brash lighting and sound effects, and the frenetic movement of pieces of the set. These elements are not subtle, for all they are judiciously used, and they offer clues into Leah’s true state of mind, unsettling us slightly and effectively enhancing the performance and the script.
Eventually, though, events and emotions overtake us, and we are plunged headlong with Leah into the moment of her rape. It is both graphic and sensitively handled, a slight distance being achieved by the physical absence of the male perpetrator on the stage, and yet it is all the more shocking to witness Leah’s agency in putting herself through the reenactment in her reckless desperatation to convince us that it happened.
Though this scene is clearly the theatrical heart of the play, its dramatic meat stems from elsewhere in the text. Little comments, tossed out casually but in hindsight weighted with significance, paint a picture of a vulnerable woman who should have been better looked after by those who claimed or pretended to a protective role in her life: her husband and his mother, her boss, her best friend. Zakarian pulls no punches with the rape, and rightly lays the blame squarely at the feet of the rapist, but while his behaviour is shocking in a societal sense, the opportunistic inevitability of rape within the context of the plot is not in itself surprising. What is more shocking, dramatically-speaking, is the ordinariness of the rape, and the unwitting collusion of us all in facilitating – and then dismissing – it. Whether this is done through carelessness or prejudice is ultimately irrelevant, the result is the same, and the show’s title is – among other things – a subtle reference to the assumption that a woman is “asking for it” if she wears an outfit more revealing than a onesie.
This unusual angle would be more satisfying still had the play delved into these aspects of the story further, and prolonged the aftermath in greater proportion with the build-up, but Fabric is an engrossing production from start to finish, its disparate elements, underpinned by the twin foundations of script and direction, allowing Sullivan the creative freedom to do her riveting, sexy, and heart-tugging best. It is stellar stuff.