Hampstead Theatre is considerably less cool than the sort of icily hip European houses that auteur director Katie Mitchell tends to ply her trade in. But that hasn’t stopped it from hosting a couple of magnificently uncompromising productions by her in recent times. She returns to its small, cramped downstairs studio with something very special in the form of ‘Little Scratch’ (or ‘little scratch’, if you want to go with the official styling).
It’s an adaptation of arts journalist Rebeca Watson’s acclaimed leftfield novel, which follows an unnamed woman’s day from waking up to falling asleep. It’s told via a first-person stream of consciousness that digresses freely while always naggingly returning to the protagonist’s recent rape by her boss, which she has told nobody about, but has clearly caused tremendous trauma, including the titular physical manifestation of scratching herself violently.
It’s been described as unadaptable, but Mitchell’s production proves it to be nothing of the sort. In fact this version by playwright Miriam Battye is beautifully musical, picking up on the natural rhythm of Watson’s wild paragraphs – which often feature two simultaneous trains of thought – but also skilfully, even slickly reengineering a lot of the text so it overlaps symphonically: sometimes light and humorous, sometimes dense, disturbing and dissonant.
Evoking the human mind via a symphony of words
Somewhat formally indebted to Sarah Kane’s ‘4.48 Psychosis’ (albeit not as bleak) I suppose you’d call it a play for voices. It’s performed by four actors – Moronkẹ Akinola, Eleanor Henderson, Eve Ponsonby and Ragevan Vasan – who throw themselves into the role emotionally, but don’t do a lot of body acting, their most ostentatious movements involving creating sound effects from the variety of props scattered on the desks they stand behind. It is ultra-minimalist: there is no set designer, and reclaimed materials are used to craft what set there is. Mitchell’s usual sound designer Melanie Wilson is on hand to add atmospheric flourishes, notably an injection of ambient dread at the right moments and a few swish surround sound effects (Wilson’s design does a lot more heavy lifting than the foley-ish interventions of the actors, it has to be said). It would work almost as well on radio, although there’s something profoundly affecting about the way Bethany Gupwell’s lighting drops to almost total darkness during the last minutes.
Evoking the human mind via a symphony of words, the form conveys the queasy dread of the protagonist’s experience living with sexual assault – as she tries to get on with her life as normal, her upset and revulsion and anger constantly flares up like a dissonant countermelody. While I’m sure it must land more viscerally if you are a woman or a survivor of rape (ie not me), it nonetheless exists as a horrible insight into what it must be like to live with something like this, and why somebody might try and swallow the awfulness down rather that allow it to become the dominant narrative in their life.
If ‘Little Scratch’ has demonstrably been made on a shoestring next to most of Mitchell’s work, it’s still a master at peak form. And let’s course not forget either Watson’s novel or Battye’s skilful adaptation - ‘Little Scratch’ is a virtuoso articulation of a remarkable piece of writing.