The tiny, above a pub, Gate Theatre in west London often punches above its weight and Suzy Storck from 2017 is no exception. Written by Magali Mougel and directed by Jean-Pierre Baro the play has all the emotional heft of a Greek tragedy where the outcome is inevitable but none the less unsettling. That it is played in such an intimate space makes the unfolding events that much more shocking.
The referencing of Greek antecedents begins straight away as two of the four strong cast are designated as Chorus. They, of course, comment on and elaborate the action which centres around Hans Vasilly and his wife the eponymous Suzy Storck. Her punning surname is rather unfortunate; someone less likely to embrace notions of motherhood would be hard to find. Nevertheless, worn down by the relentless demands of her husband she has three children and finds herself trapped and alone providing for the needs of her family and gradually losing any sense of her personal identity. Essentially, she finds herself on a conveyor belt of existence in much the same way she once processed chickens in a factory where she used to have a job. “Sustained” by alcohol her life continues in a downward trajectory until the inevitable occurs.
The setting for the play is very telling. The audience sit right round the perimeter which draws them into the piece and which makes them somewhat complicit as they silently watch the unfolding events. Behind them are curtains depicting woodlands implying freedom until in the course of the action we come to regard them as isolating and threatening . At one end a blazing, never setting sun glares through the window – Suzy (and we) can see nothing beyond the immediate and that is a kitchen in rural France, a room littered with children’s toys and games. This is a strong visual metaphor for the mess which Suzy’s life has become and shows immediately how the children have come to dominate her life and the fact that she gets no help from her abusive partner in keeping things tidy. Eventually the audience are invited to help her sort out the mess and they join her in a communal act of clearing away the debris but, by this time it is too late; events have gone too far for Suzy to take back control.
There is a devastating central portrayal by Caoilfhionn Dunne as a woman falling apart under pressure. As the song “Wonderful Life” ironically plays on the radio the play starts towards the end of the narrative as the pressure builds to boiling point. Dunne stumbles around in a semi catatonic state the configuration of the stage allowing the actor no hiding place; her raw emotion is palpable. Then everything spirals backwards to show how she got to where she is and how her life is irrevocably changed when she meets Hans a fellow worker at the chicken processing plant. Jonah Russell makes Hans seem like a regular kind of guy until he gets Suzy where he wants her and the emotional and eventual physical abuse begins. It would be easy to make this character one dimensional but what Russell does is infinitely more subtle. Kate Duchene and Theo Solomon provide the choral element emerging from among the audience to emphasise the increasingly mechanistic nature of Suzy’s day (“Up goes her hand….”). They also slip into and out of the other characters in the drama and Duchene is particularly adept at this as she transforms into, among others, Suzy’s uncomprehending mother and a prospective employer asking all the cliched interview questions she can muster.
This is not an easy watch. Far from the rom com or children’s tale suggested by the title, this modern drama is absorbing and even harrowing. Although the full impact can probably only be fully appreciated by being in a live audience it is still shiver inducing, even at once removed down the lens of a camera. Recommended.
Production photos by Helen Murray
Suzy Storck is available on the Gate Theatre’s You Tube channel. Click here
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