Dennis Potter said of his disturbing drama, Brimstone and Treacle, that it is ‘more like the narratives of life than the narratives we prefer to follow’. His premise that evil can follow from a good act and a good consequence can follow from an evil deed, is uncomfortable to contemplate and the themes within the drama confront us with uneasy hypocrisies of life and the terrible helplessness of the victim. Potter’s own life experiences feed into his writing powerfully.
Commissioned by the BBC and written in 1976 against the backdrop of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the National Front and fear of Irish terrorism, the play was not produced for over a decade, as it was considered unpalatable although brilliantly written.
Set in a suburban, 1970’s domestic interior, Mrs Bates cares for her daughter Pattie, who is bed bound, incontinent and unable to communicate following a hit and run accident. Her mother remains determined that Pattie is mentally aware and has the potential to recover. Her father is convinced that she is gone and merely a tragic shadow of her former self. When Martin Taylor arrives purporting to be Pattie’s friend from Art College and in love with her, the couple are taken in. Mrs Bates in her isolated, burdened existence is only too ready to welcome him in whereas Mr Bates, ever the cynic, is not so sure but ultimately persuaded when Taylor plays to his prejudices. The dramatic and comedic asides to the audience from Taylor quickly establish his trickery and also have the effect of implying some complicity on the part of the viewer, setting a deep sense of unease as the drama unfolds with Taylor’s rape of Pattie, who is helpless in any way to stop him.
Sting made an iconic appearance as Martin Taylor in the 1982 film of Brimstone and Treacle with indicators that he was the Devil incarnate. Played here at the Arcola by screen star Rupert Friend, we see a deeply unsettling portrayal of a human capacity to commit evil; Friend teases out all the nuances of the character. Matti Houghton as Pattie is choreographed in what seem to be dream sequences to thrash perhaps involuntarily, perhaps not, to a soundtrack of the Sex Pistols.This is suggestive not just of a desire to break out of her physical condition but also away from the suburban setting of her parents home and the sense of impotence in her parents’ relationship. When she finally screams so loudly that her parents wake up, during Martin’s second rape, he runs off and she is brought back from her altered state. We are left with the uneasy proposition that his violation has released her from entrapment.
Tessa Peake-Jones plays Mrs Bates with equal measures of a desperately lonely, underappreciated woman and deeply loyal mother, faithful to the belief that her daughter will return. She is perfect pray for Martin Taylor’s shallow charms. Ian Redford is powerfully persuasive as the disillusioned conservative Mr Bates, dallying with right-wing extremism but lacking any real belief in its ideology. Equally, whilst he’s tired of his wife and his life and refuses to contemplate Patti’s recovery (and what consequences he may then face) he’s capable of love and contrition where Martin Taylor most certainly is not.
Design by Alex Eales is like a perfectly curated exhibit of the 1970’s suburban existence of the middle classes. The shades of beige, patterned designs, wallpaper, carpet and candlewick bed spread evoke an era with extreme clarity.
Director Amelia Sears has made a brave choice; the production is one of the Arcola’s iron fist in a velvet glove moments and the first major London revival of the play Dennis Potter considered to be his best work.
Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle at the Arcola Theatre presented by SEArED.
Photography credit Judie Waldmann
Brimstone and Treacle runs in the Arcola Studio 2 until 02 June.
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