Treats was originally written in 1975, produced in 1976, and set in 1974. It was revived in 2007, and the updated stage direction suggested it could be set in the present. The course that director Alistair Browning has taken, however, is going one step further and has decided to set it in New Zealand in the near future; ‘the day after tomorrow’, where the repercussions of the contribution of army training troops to Iraq are starting to be felt.
These changes are neatly made, and I enjoyed the director’s choice to include real current events. They have little impact on the story; the main events all take place in one room, a sparsely furnished room in Ann’s flat in Auckland. The story is simple. Ann and her lover, Patrick, are spending a quiet evening together when her abusive ex-boyfriend (and co-owner of the flat), Dave, turns up, punches Patrick in the face, and begins a campaign of sexually-charged intimidation to win Ann back. In turn charming, and utterly horrible, he humiliates the couple till they have nothing but contempt for themselves and each other. It is not an easy watch, but as a study of a sociopath, it is never less than gripping.
Originally a response to Ibsen’s Doll’s House, which in the seventies was considered by many feminists to be about problems in the past, Hampton is of the opinion that there are many women still trapped in violent relationships and that ‘our instinct for making calamitous decisions has not changed and very probably never will.’ Back in the seventies, Ann’s submission was considered a bit improbable by critics, and back then, there was no internet, thus fewer opportunities to meet people, with an instilled sense of patriarchy from growing up in the fifties, and a culture that tolerated, nay celebrated, Jimmy Saville. Even though it was also considered improbable by critics that an attractive, smart woman earning decent money would have a long relationship with a sadist, we know some do – Nigella Lawson, for one. The question is why?
Thinking back over the script, I would suggest Hampton puts it down to sex, status and excitement. And Jeff Szusterman as Dave is sexy, he plays him as a lower class lad made good with lots of bravura, wit, and just enough vulnerability to give a woman a reason to stay, despite the fact he’s intolerable. He is a womaniser who cannot resist the game. As an example of the sort of man who is vile to his woman, it is a fair choice, but I think he lacked status; I wasn’t quite convinced when Dave won Ann back. He is supposed to be a reporter, not a squaddie, one wonderful with words, and with access to an incredibly exciting world. I didn’t see that.
Amber-Rose Henshall plays Ann with incisiveness at first, and slowly loses her grip on her convictions. This is an incredibly demanding part which lays an actress bare, literally and psychologically. Henshall is a good actress, and gives a word-perfect intelligent performance here, but I wasn’t sure she completely inhabited her, at least on opening night. This is an opportunity to do an amazing character study of a woman, who on the surface is so successful, with massive charm undermined by self loathing and vulnerability. When Dave says awful things to her, there is a large part of her which should agree, and should connect with him for seeing the real her. Here, Ann is strong, sometimes a bit stiff, and I wasn’t sure that the power games excited her in a real heart-pounding, breath fluttering, physical sense, which meant it was harder to believe the devastating effect of Dave’s final humiliation of her.
Simon Ward as Patrick is dull, unattractive, and weak with kindness - his main redeeming feature. In this cockfight he is doomed to lose. Ward is the most convincing player here, utterly at home as Patrick: he is also playing the most normal character in the play. Well meaning, generally happy, and he too wants the cool girl, even if it means she treats him with contempt.
This production is compelling, generally well-acted, and thought-provoking, but I think that the production underestimates the importance of status for these characters, which undermines it. This is exacerbated by the choice to set the play in New Zealand. I don’t think the New Zealand intelligentsia behave in quite the same way as the ‘are you a member of this club?’ class and status-obsessed British do - this is a compliment to New Zealanders. In my view, the characterisation of Dave was not high-status enough (I don’t mean class, but access and power) to draw Ann, nor did he seem to offer her a more interesting and exciting life outside the bedroom. Ann is not trapped by poverty, she has choices, and she makes a choice. In this production it can only be explained by sex and perhaps a fear of physical violence, but that doesn’t explain Ann’s cruelty to Patrick to score a point with Dave at the end.
The set is just right, albeit a bit bland – but this could be explained by Dave’s refusal to allow her to be who she likes, and that she has not yet recovered. The lighting is very good, underscoring the action beautifully. I would recommend any girl who needs encouragement to cut ties with the bad boy her friends say she is too good for, to come see this as a salient reminder that sometimes a person will not be reformed. Though I think there is more for the actors to find, this is nevertheless a thought-provoking production and well worth watching.