A frequently aired topic of the moment is domestic abuse. After centuries when wife-beating has been the tolerated norm rather than something to make a fuss about, it’s in the news as never before.
Tracy Going was severely battered by her boyfriend, who took particular delight in mashing up the face that was crucial to her TV career. It’s 18 or 20 years ago now, but you never get over it, Going tells the audience in a question and answer session after the performance.
Brutal Legacy is directed by Lesedi Job, who heard Going being interviewed about the book, bought a copy, and teamed up with actress Natasha Sutherland to adapt it for the stage.
Sutherland wrote the script, giving us two Tracys and playing the older version who is writing her memoir, while Jessica Wolhuter plays the younger Tracy as she relives the story. Charlie Bougenon plays her boyfriend, changing from charming and courteous into a vicious bloody psychopath in an instant. All three actors are excellent, and a violent scene near the end makes you want to cry.
Having two Tracys interacting with each other works superbly as they share memories and bounce ideas around, pondering what went wrong. We all do that in our heads, re-examining whether we did the wrong thing or reacted the wrong way. Stayed when we should have gone. Opened the door when we should have left it shut. Allowing these thoughts to be expressed verbally is crucial for the story, and the ongoing dialogue is theatrically far more interesting and offers broader possibilities than a monologue.
There are some moments where it doesn’t work as well – chiefly when they talk over each other and you can’t hear either. That happens during a courtroom scene when I’m straining to hear every word to know why they let the bastard off.
Sutherland’s words were also indistinct at times, and occasionally there’s a sense that the crew is so well versed in the book that for them, the story tells itself, while the audience might be wondering how we suddenly got from here to there. But these are minor quibbles in production that overall feels timeous, worthy and important.
A general analysis of the reasons behind domestic violence is beyond the scope of Brutal Legacy, but elements are drawn in that show a strong correlation between childhood circumstances and how you evolve. Going was determined to break the cycle that saw her mother beaten by her alcoholic father, while the abusive boyfriend had an absent father and an alcoholic mother.
The story delves deeply into Going’s childhood, with older Tracy recalling how she would listen out for her father’s arrival home, judging from the sound of his footsteps how drunk he was and how violent the night would be.
Sutherland is at her best in these moments, warmly engrossing us with stories like how he drove her to boarding school and left her waiting by the car when he disappeared into a pub for a little lubrication.
Disturbing facts drawn from the book press home harsh truths about how the legal system is stacked against the victim, not the perpetrator. Going was in the witness stand for three days. Her assailant was questioned for only three hours. The judge saw her as a scorned woman concocting lies for revenge, emphasising very neatly why women don’t go to the police or follow it through to court. The darkness is alleviated by a clever and witty scene with the two Tracys conducting a radio commentary on the case, although the reality is no joke.
The stage set also plays its part in the drama, with a comfortable lounge and areas that become a restaurant or a courtroom. But hanging from the ceiling are more tables and chairs and a menacingly open door, showing us that Going’s home isn’t the safe, predictable and orderly place she thought it was. Everything is disrupted, with the spectre of danger dangling above her. Dangling above us all. DM
Brutal Legacy runs at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until 27 April. The team is planning to hold regular Q & A sessions with the audience after the performance. Tickets from Computicket or 011 883 8606
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