Trigger Warning: discussion of self-harm follows.
Halfway through the first act of Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure (2018), there is a scene involving self-harm. It is no exaggeration to say that it will stay with me for the rest of my life, and for all the wrong reasons. I saw this production in November; it is now February, and not a day has gone by since where the scene in question hasn’t haunted me.
In the scene, Helena Wilson plays jilted lover Mariana, whose betrothed, Angelo, abandoned her when her dowry was lost. Heartbroken, Mariana has since retreated to a convent. She first appears onstage sitting alone on a bench, peeling an apple with a knife. She works silently, steadily. There is hush among the audience, punctuated by odd bursts of (nervous?) laughter from some. Wilson, though, is not playing for laughs: her facial expression – blank, hardly blinking – suggests that Mariana’s thoughts are elsewhere. After some time, she pauses, sets down the apple, and lifts up the hem of her tunic. Her thigh is covered in unmistakable cuts and scars, vivid and horrible, and in the silence of the theatre one becomes agonisingly aware of the knife still in her hand. Without pause or warning, she brings the knife towards her leg.
Before she can proceed any further, a flurry of nuns invade the stage and grapple her back onto the bench. The knife is removed amid the hubbub, and at this point my memory of the narrative becomes a little unclear. Lines were spoken on stage, yes, but I don’t have the foggiest what they were. What I can recall is the tightness in my chest and the pounding in my ears; the realisation that I hadn’t drawn breath in far too long; the whiteness of my knuckles as I gripped the edge of my seat.
And I remember the sound of laughter.
Members of the audience were laughing.
There are any number of possible reasons why these people may have laughed. I don’t want to think that it came from a place of cruelty or ignorance. I would like to be charitable and suggest that the laughter was born out of nerves, or shock. We’ve all been there, I tell myself. Perhaps some of the laughter came from a sense of relief that Mariana had been stopped in the nick of time. I’d like very much to think that this was the case, although I will never be able to say for certain.
That evening, though, the type of laughter that the scene elicited didn’t really matter. What mattered was the way that the sound cut through me as I desperately sought to retain my composure, to stifle waves of panic and nausea. I remember scanning the rows of seats around me, wondering how many other people felt had been made to feel the same or worse.
And what matters now, months on – the thought I keep coming back to again and again – is that it was all so completely unnecessary. The self-harming, the laughter, the way that it made me (and others, I have no doubt) feel. None of it was necessary in the slightest.
I don’t condemn theatre which dramatises self-harm per se. Indeed, I’m a staunch believer in the power of drama to shock while tackling important and relevant social issues. Here, though, Rourke treats self-harm as a throwaway gimmick; a lazy visual signifier for the emotional turmoil of a character whose most important scenes are heavily edited or omitted altogether in the director’s quest to give audiences something that they haven’t seen before. The self-harming is a directorial decision based on nothing in the playtext, and one which contributes absolutely nothing to the production in terms of narrative. While it certainly shocks, it does so without aim or purpose. Instead, a woman’s private act of self-harm (the positioning of the cuts on Mariana’s upper leg speaks volumes about the thought behind the staging of this scene) is made public in the most traumatic of ways; she is exposed both literally and figuratively, and to the sound of laughter. I shudder to think how the execution of this scene might have affected some members of the audience. And all, I repeat, for no reason. The issue is not addressed again. No one speaks of it. Mariana’s story goes unresolved.
As for the problematic audience reaction, I recognise that the audience on any given night will always be, to an extent at least, an unknown variable. For this reason I’ll set aside my immediate reaction that a director as experienced as Rourke should have recognised the potential for awkward and untimely laughter during a the scene described above. Instead, I’ll suggest that if – if – this scene were deemed absolutely vital to the success of the show, anyone on the production team with an ounce of common sense should have placed a trigger warning on the ticket booking page of the website, or on the front of the programme, or on any of the promotional material. Such a warning may not have solved the problem, but at the very least it would have limited the potential for shocked laughter. More importantly, if the self-harming had to happen, a warning would have been an act of kindness to those in the audience who, like myself, found the experience harrowing.
It is a sad indictment of present-day attitudes towards mental health and the marginalisation of self-harm that not only was no such trigger warning offered by the Donmar Warehouse, but I have yet to read a review of the show which so much as mentions the Mariana scene. It is also proof, perhaps, of how little this scene was expected to matter to audiences.
It mattered to me, though, personally and professionally, and I’m certain that it would have mattered to others who saw the production last year too. The whole reason that I was in the audience that November evening was because I was supervising a school trip. Just two months before Measure for Measure came to the Donmar, a survey of 11,000 14-year-old children conducted by The Children’s Society found that 22% of the girls and 9% of the boys said they had hurt themselves on purpose.
Think about that for a moment. Think about how those children might have felt, seeing that pointless, painful scene and hearing that audience laughter. Then think about the fact that Measure for Measure is currently taught as a GCSE and A-Level text at schools across the country.
Sometimes a play can be so callous, so poorly-judged, so utterly tone-deaf that one isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. On this occasion, however, my mind is rather made up.
If you would like further information about self-harm, or are seeking help and support, visit:
User-led organisation for people who self-harm, and their friends and families.
User-led self-harm guidance and support network.
0808 808 4994 (helpline)
Helpline and online support for people aged 16–25.
National Self Harm Network (NSHN)
Survivor-led closely monitored forum for people who self-harm, and their friends and families.
116 123 (freephone 24-hour helpline)
0808 802 5544 (parent helpline)
Information for parents and young people about mental health and wellbeing