By Arnold Wesker
At the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, London.
Booking until June 2012.
“I worry that theatre has become the home of the cosy and the comfortable, where the politically correct are stroked and intelligence remains unchallenged”
These are not the words of some young firebrand but of 80 year old Arnold Wesker, still going strong, the author of this highly charged polemic about the scandal of Recovered Memory Therapy. Wesker, whose classic plays The Kitchen and Chicken Soup With Barley were recently revived to huge acclaim, is one of the great angry (now) old men of British Theatre.
Recovered Memory Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that assumes that many problems, bulimia and depression for example, are due to unconsciously repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse and it assumes that a healthy psychological state can only be restored by recovering and facing these repressed memories.
High profile cases, such as Roseanne Barr, have fuelled talk show and tabloid frenzy about the subject. Those accused face a path of destruction with marriage break-ups, the loss of friends, careers and businesses. For many it has ended in suicide. While in Britain the Royal College of Psychiatrists has officially banned its members from using these therapies, counselling remains unregulated and many unqualified therapists persist in this controversial line of work.
Here Wesker introduces us to a confident and articulate middle-class couple Matthew (Nicholas Gecks) and Karen (Stephanie Beattie) who, out of the blue, receive a blistering answerphone message from their daughter Jenny (Clare Cameron) accusing her father of serial abuse aided and abetted by her grandfather and mother. Under the care of controversial therapist Valerie Morgan (Sally Plumb), Jenny has been convinced that the root of her unhappiness has been the denial of this abuse. Her sister Abigail (Shelley Lang), a clear-eyed lawyer, is horrified at her parents’ suffering and is the first to confront the therapist, railing against the ‘junk language’ of therapy. The piece is completed with Maggie Daniels as Sandy Cornwall, a documentary maker whose research on RMT neatly allows the complexity of the issue to unfold while she provides support to the family. “Your daughter is being given an explanation for every f*** up she has made in her life” she explains, complaining that repressed memory accusations get acted upon without corroborating evidence.
“Find the family you’ve chosen not the one you’ve been lumbered with” is the call of therapist Valerie and she tells her clients “what you remember is irrelevant”. In the final formal confrontation with the parents, and under Valerie’s careful tutelage, Jenny unleashes a trance like mantra of abuse, like someone possessed.
Sandy tries to explain the syndrome as the victims being unable to cope with other people’s happiness, the sight of which fuels their destructiveness. The therapist then gives them licence to indulge these feelings further.
With the characters all dressed in sober black, this stripped-down, minimalist staging by Adam Spreadbury-Maher relies for its power on the words and here Wesker doesn’t disappoint. He masterfully condenses the complex issue down to 90 lucid minutes and while you may argue it is unbalanced he would argue that a strong scepticism about repressed memory in adults is not a denial that sexual abuse exists.
The weak spots here are in the acting, particularly in the central roles, with Plumb lacking sufficient gravitas for the steely Valerie and Cameron somewhat at sea during Jenny’s more melodramatic outbursts.
Repressed memory theory, we are told in a programme note, runs counter to the substantial body of research that exists on memory, and Wesker and the Kings Head are to be applauded for giving this subject an airing.