Anyone seeing the title of the play Lady in Red and expecting a romantic story themed around the Chris de Burgh schmaltz-fest is going to be in for a shock.
Created by the Certain Curtain theatre company, it is an examination of domestic violence - as they put it, ‘it tells one woman's struggle to break the chains of love’.
It is Christmas eve and 'Rose,' a woman in a red dress, awakes to find that she has no memory of who or where she is. As she gradually weaves the threads of memory together, a dark and violent picture begins to emerge. Compelled to leave for fear of her life Rose begins to pack. But it's dark outside and the house is full of strange noises. Will she escape, before her attacker returns? Or is he still in the house?
The play was written by Claire Moore, who also performs in the piece, with her creative partner and Certain Curtain’s co-founder, John Woudberg back in 2000.
Claire explains how the play came about.
‘We turned 30 years old this year as a company, and we’ve only ever done original work, but we did our first play around these issues in 1995, and it took over our lives in a way.
‘Not only because of the response we got but also the audience members coming to talk to us about their experiences.
‘We decided that we needed to get trained in the issues because just because you're an actor doing something doesn't mean that you're in the best place to support anybody that might come to you after the performance.
‘I, in particular, get a lot of women talking to me about their experiences, and obviously over the years.
‘We’ve become a bit obsessed about using theatre to raise awareness about domestic violence.
‘But what grew out of our first tour was the one thing that I think most people ask, which is, why doesn't she just leave?
‘Lady in Red was written to help audiences answer that question for themselves.
'We've heard a lot about coercive control over the last year or so. That terminology didn't exist when we were doing our research, but it’s really about understanding the impact of emotional and psychological abuse.’
Issue-driven drama may get a bad rap for being overly worthy, but Claire’s passion for the subject matter, is a clear driving force.
‘I think drama is a great way of connecting people with the issues. It helps people to live in somebody else's shoes for a short space of time and I think people don't forget what you make them feel. Drama has a great way of doing that, connecting people's emotions. But it's a great piece of theatre, even if I say so myself!
‘We were shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award when we took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and it's got a lovely kind of lyrical beauty to it. I think people expect it to have this kind of EastEnders feel about it, but it doesn’t.
‘It's a tough subject and it deals with it frankly - the language is strong, the issues are strong, but there's a beautiful story of one woman's kind of resilience if you like, and the hope that she has for her future with her son.’
While Claire thinks there have been positive shifts in society around the awareness of domestic violence, the underlying amount hasn’t really changed.
For the past nine years Claire has run a Twitter account documenting domestic violence murders.
‘People would say, “Oh, it's not that big an issue.”
‘So we started to list women who were killed in the UK by a known man - it’s mainly husbands and partners and ex-partners, but also sons and grandsons, and on average two women a week are killed in the UK, and that hasn't changed in the nine years that I've been doing it.’
Another barrier they’ve run up against is the perception that the people being this show must be men-haters.
’It really isn't, it’s about hating abusive behaviour,’ she counters. ‘John is a childhood survivor of domestic violence from both male and female members of his family.
‘But he’s very verbal about how the majority of violence is committed by men against women, and men and women are more at risk of violence from men, than they are from women.
‘But you get a lot of stick sometimes when you portray female victims because you inevitably get someone that says: “Well, what about the men?”
‘I've had men come and talk to me, gay men mainly, who have said they had no problem putting themselves in the shoes of the main character.
‘I think that's the great thing about drama, we don't need to see an exact replica of ourselves, I think drama can connect with us on an emotional level, and we can see parts of ourselves and our own story in that.’
After the show there will be the chance for the audience to talk with the people behind the show.
‘I like to describe it as the bonus DVD material except we’re alive and kicking.
‘It’s a unique opportunity to talk to the writers and actors of something they’ve seen, to ask questions, but just generally talk about stuff and that's why it's great to have local support services come along, because often women will say: “Oh, God, I didn't realise that that’s happening to me”.
'When you're in it, you just think it's a spaghetti mess of stuff and you just think it's all your fault and sometimes, to see yourself portrayed in a drama can make you realise that actually, that's not normal.’
Through their work, Claire says they have come to realise that the spectre of domestic violence is rarely far away.
‘If you think, statistically, one in three women will experience it. If you’ve got three female friends, one of them will experience it, and I think that’s the tip of the iceberg.
‘We tour all over the place and stay in all these hotels, whenever we meet people, whether it's the receptionist, or someone at a restaurant or at breakfast and they ask us what we're doing there, we talk about it.
‘They either say, oh god, I went through that, or my sister, or my friend. I very rarely talk to anybody that says, I've never come across it.
‘Except there was this one event in London which was quite funny where Iain Duncan Smith was talking and everybody was having coffee afterwards.
‘Somebody asked me what I did, so I was talking about the domestic violence stuff we do, and she said: “Oh, really? I thought that was all sorted out in the 70s”.
‘I had to laugh because I just imagined everybody being given a certificate: it’s all over now - everything’s been sorted.
‘If only that was the case.’
The project is part-funded by an award from People’s Postcode Trust, a grant-giving charity funded entirely by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
Entry is free, but reserve your ticket to ensure a seat.
There will be a bucket collection at the end of the evening, with proceeds split between Curtain Call and Portsmouth-based domestic violence charity, Aurora New Dawn, who will also be at the show.
• Lady In RED
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Wednesday, November 6