CultureClash Theatre and Greenwich Theatre take the inevitable victim-blaming that surrounds cases of violence against women to extremes in Under My Thumb, written by Cassiah Joski-Jethi and directed by James Haddrell.
Locked away in prison in the ‘dystopian present’, five women train themselves to withstand the tortures inflicted by the guards, under the direction of the bullying Hattie (Charlotte Green) – until a sixth prisoner, Ree (Serin Ibrahim), is added to their cell. A battle of wills ensues between Ree, who pragmatically encourages the others to abandon the training regime and to take the tests that will allow them to leave the prison, and Hattie who believes that surviving in prison indefinitely is a better option than the loss of self-esteem that would be necessary to pass the tests and return to a brutal, unfair world.
The language is minimalistic, with more left unsaid than said. As such, the premise is slow to become apparent, and the time and effort required to work out the situation takes away from one’s ability to engage emotionally with the characters. With little information about the outside world, it is also hard to know whether to root for Ree or Hattie when it comes to the prisoners’ plans – though ultimately it appears to be a no-win situation.
The cast give strong performances. Jessica Aquilina, as the mostly silent Nev, commands attention when she does eventually speak, and Cassandra Hercules has great energy as the belligerent Sam. The relationship between the protective Lily (Alice De-Warrenne) and the emotionally vulnerable Rosaline (Ketorah Williams) adds a necessary touch of kindness.
There are some areas in which the performance could be slicker. The choreographed fight sequences are frequently a little too obviously staged. And though the reason for them eventually becomes clear, the incorporated video segments feel somewhat awkwardly worked in and do slow the action unnecessarily. Additionally, the volume of the clips could stand to be louder as they can barely be heard, especially above the noise from other shows in the venue.
Though the execution is a bit rough at times, Under My Thumb is potent and affecting in its portrayal of the violent treatment women face in our society and the strain that victim-blaming narratives place on them. It is certainly a promising and commendable piece by a relatively new company.