Sexual domination and submission are big just now. Bookshops are full of badly written soft-corn porn. John Maguire’s new play Bruise on the other hand tackles the subject with psychological insight that drags the audience into uncomfortable places.
Nathan (Anthony Proctor) survived physical abuse from his mother. Ewan (James Devlin) endured humiliation for being ‘different’ at school. Both learnt to eroticise, and so cope with, the experience. But when the couple’s relationship comes under stress this defence mechanism becomes more extreme - even cruel.
Although graphic Maguire’s play is not crude- he ensures that the complexity of the relationship is explored. He subtly, and lyrically, reminds the audience that what one person may find offensive could be romantic to another. A bruise is a way of marking, and so objectifying, someone but it is also tender. Maguire is not dependent upon words to tell his story. The opening to both Acts is without dialogue. To a pulsing electro-beat the couple perform mundane tasks with an aggression that conveys the sense of a relationship gone stale. Later, attempts to avoid eye contact push them into exercise routines so extreme they border on dance.
The characters could easily become clichés – aloof icy sociopath and so on. The truly disturbing aspect of the play is the level of unhappiness that the actors bring to their parts. Proctor shows that Nathan might aspire to a voyeuristic objectivity but actually has a desperate need to make a connection – even if this involves physical violence. Proctor brings an unpleasant cowardly aspect to Nathan as he indulges in the old lie that the victim provoked the abuse. But then, as Devlin shows, failed writer Ewan does respond with verbal violence. With his defensive posture Devlin creates someone whose life has been shaped by his perceived failures. The result is a couple who really seem made for each other – bound together by a need that might be perverse but is mutual.