There’s a strange blend of reality and fantasy in Stella Feehily’s play Dreams of Violence. Max Stafford-Clark’s production is now on a national tour; it’s a co-production between his own Out of Joint and the Soho Theatre and tells the story of what can only be described as an archetypical dysfunctional family.
Hildy is the central character and we first meet her as she recalls a dream in which she castrates her husband, soon to be her ex-. In the succession of short scenes which follow, the pains and troubles of her immediate family – mother gilding memories of a show business career with alcohol and tobacco, father decaying in an old people’s home, druggie son attempting to lick the habit and that soon-to-be ex-husband – intermingle with Hildy’s own life-work of political activism through a grassroots organisation called Small Change.
Small change is, of course, all that Hildy can spare for her family as far as emotional support is concerned. She’s not, one feels, a very nice person (even if some of her intentions are worthy) and it’s a measure of the strength of Catherine Russell’s performance that one can wish Hildy a better future than the one the author has documented. Russell’s is a portrait in three-dimensions of a character who could just end up with two.
Shirley is the mother if not from hell, certainly from its fringes. Paula Wilcox gives her immense vulnerability as she recalls past triumphs (which perhaps were not as perfect as memory viewed through a wineglass and old video tapes makes them) and faces a future where only Botox might smooth the inner as well as the outer wrinkles. The three men in Hildy’s life are Nigel Cooke as husband Ben, Ciaran McIntyre as father Jack and Jamie Baughan as son Jamie. Giles Cooper doubles the roles of a nurse and a banker.
The banker comes into the story through Hildy’s recruitment of two office cleaners to her anti-capitalism cause. Annie (Mossie Smith) is the more brash of the two, though Thusitha Jayasundera comes into her own as the two stage their own protest and try to make one of the moneymen to whom they are even less than invisible take notice and pay attention.
So far, so real. The dialogue is an odd mixture of heightened prose and free verse, give or take the odd iambic pentameter. In opera you can disentangle individual voices even when two or more are singing at the same time and at cross-purposes. That’s not so easy with spoken dialogue, and there’s much overlapping of speeches at certain moments. It has a strangely alienating effect, even in a small theatre.
A busy stage management team implementing Lucy Osborne’s set take us from Ben’s new Thames-side flat to Hildy’s house (where her mother has temporarily taken up residence), to the residential home, an office and – finally – a hospital. It’s a bit fidgety, even with clever lighting by Johanna Town and some effective sound organised by Paul Charlier. You can’t say that the play is either old-fashioned or avant-garde. It’s just that one is left with a sense of having been on this protest march before.