"It happens here." A sentence that seems to be setting the scene becomes a statement of fact by the end of Magali Mougel's unflinching dissection of domestic abuse. Suzy Storck, a working-class woman ground down by marriage and motherhood, is no simple fiction. She exists. She's real. "It happens here."
Mougel offers a clinical analysis of the way patriarchal power manifests in the family home – and goes largely unseen. Suzy herself (Caoilfhionn Dunne) is a hostage to housework, but it takes a long time to clock it, such is the apparent normality of her situation. Abuse only gradually comes into full view as her partner Hans Vassily (Jonah Russell) slides from underhand misogyny to outright violence.
Having left her factory job at a poultry processing plant (it was "chicken, sportswear or nappies," we're told – i.e. that, modelling or motherhood) to start a relationship with a co-worker, Suzy finds herself a mother of three, despite never wanting or even consenting to children. It is a fact that pins her into place – a lifetime of tidying, washing, breastfeeding and more.
It's an unremitting play, one that grinds both its audience and its protagonist down. It's all the more galling because we don't spot it coming and Suzy Storck's brilliance lies in the way Mougel dupes us into obliviousness. It's deliberately disorientating, slipping back and forth in time, in and out of narration, as if leading us into a different sort of story. Even Suzy Storck's name – those cute double Ss – suggests another ending: a quirky romcom or dreamy fantasia. We hardly suspect until it's too late – a sign of how often domestic abuse goes unseen until something snaps. If society so often blames the victim, our blindness is to blame.
The combination of pleasing magical realism and the painful precision you find in Franz Xaver Kroetz's social realism is confounding, and Jean-Pierre Baro's production serves the slipperiness brilliantly. He slowly increases the violence so that what starts as description becomes stage business before its suddenly all too real. Cécile Trémolières' living room design is wallpapered with a lush forest, confusing the domestic with the great outdoors. These walls imply freedom, and the marital home – a patriarchal imposition – disguises itself as something natural.
Mougel makes absolutely clear that it is not, tying marriage and motherhood into a wider economic system. Setting domestic life against employment, the play makes clear the extent of the (enforced, unpaid and unrecognised) labour involved in child-rearing and housekeeping – most of it, still, borne by women. The text turns Suzy into a domestic machine ("up goes her arm to hang up the washing") and Baro sits her at a sewing machine, its needle stabbing away violently.
In the play's best moment, she kneels to tidy those toys – pained and exhausted, staring out at a sea of mess with tears in her eyes. She starts, stops and sighs, then asks us for help. In joining her – helping her – we experience that posture; the discomfort and degradation of kneeling on the floor, the slight pain in your knees and the inanity of scooping up toys on repeat. It is a startling moment of theatrical empathy – a mundane action transformed forever.
Dunne is, frankly, devastating as the woman drained of her life. She stands before us, limbs slack, head heavy, staring blankly out the window as wine sloshes around in her glass – a waif, but worn down and wasted. Russell matches her as the abusive Hans Vasilly, never likeable, but superficially charming – until he's not. He storms into the space like a weather system. Kate Duchene and Theo Solomon provide strong choral support in a forceful production that presses home its point. "It happens here."
Suzy Storck runs at the Gate Theatre until 18 November.