Originally written for Exeunt.
I’m walking home. It’s dark. The usual route – the bright, busy, familiar route – is closed off by roadworks. Diversion signs point down a quiet side street, through an almost deserted car park, round a secluded corner. In an alley between two tall, empty buildings, it’s just me and two men sat in a parked van. As I walk past the van, the door closest to me starts to open. I think: is this it?
Such moments of primal yet well-rehearsed fear are the substance of The Darkest Corners. Every woman who walks alone at night will have thought those three words, or a variation on them. Is this it? Is it about to happen to me? The thing that I’ve dreaded and braced myself for – is it actually happening?
RashDash’s latest show is suffused with the violence – real, imagined and feared – that women face all the time on streets all over the world. Its relationship with that violence, though, is complicated. “We don’t want to make you more scared,” Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen tell us at the start. And they don’t want to replicate the abuse and harassment they are confronting, replacing a violence with a violence. But neither do they want to minimise that abuse, letting silence breed silence.
As in Two Man Show and We Want You To Watch, the problem of RashDash’s premise is integral to the dynamic of the show. Abbi and Helen want to scrap it all and start over. They want to tear apart patriarchy and pornography and violence against women. But they can’t escape those structures. And so they wrestle with what can’t be smashed and put their bruised and bloodied failures centre stage.
Here, centre stage is a car park – one of the dark and potentially fearful corners of night-time Leeds. Sat on upturned crates and listening in through headphones, the audience observe the series of after-dark encounters that play out across this wide outdoor arena. It’s an empty, exposing space, one in which Madeline Shann’s lone female walker looks particularly vulnerable.
Immediately, I hate that that’s my first thought. I see a woman and I see a potential victim. She sees a man and she sees a potential attacker.
These are the kinds of thoughts that The Darkest Corners bristles with. It takes us right inside the female protagonist’s head, which is startlingly like the inside of my own. Real, paralysing fear – what if he’s planning to attack me? – tussles with attempts at rationalising – he’s probably just thinking about what he’s going to have for dinner. There’s a complex representation, too, of how violence infects the imagination and how suspicion taints innocent interactions. “That’s a violent thought,” the woman catches herself thinking, as she pictures a brutal fight with the unwitting man approaching her on the road ahead.
The knottiness of the subject matter and RashDash’s approach to it is alternately eased and intensified by the fantastic series of songs they’ve put together with regular collaborator Becky Wilkie. The show’s music covers the whole spectrum from fluttering anxiety to punky defiance to a wistful ode to freedom and exploration. The lyrics, meanwhile, deliver some of the wittiest lines of the night, skewering the contradictory and often victim-blaming advice handed out to women (“skirts are easy access and heels make you slow, a ponytail is an absolute no-no”).
Not everything works quite so well. Jami Quarrell’s character, a sort of MC-cum-salesman who periodically interrupts with unsettling little skits, is one of the weaker links in the piece. Admittedly, his sales pitches for whistles and rape alarms make the important point that fear and violence for some mean profit for others; it’s to the market’s advantage that the burden of preventing sexual assault falls on women rather than men. The more he appears, though, the less the grating repetition written into the role pays off.
There are also moments when RashDash struggle to prevent their usual explosive energy from dissipating slightly across the expanse of space that they’re working with. But mostly it’s thrilling to see the company making theatre on such an ambitious scale, bursting out of the black box studios that have more often contained them in recent years. Here, there’s room for big, gutsy choreography, as well as for a series of vehicles to drive in and out of the action. There’s something oddly magical and exhilarating about a bus suddenly trundling into a piece of theatre, even if it is being staged in a car park.
As in all of their work, RashDash aren’t here to offer answers. For women, the fear, violence and harassment that The Darkest Corners grapples with is likely to be horribly yet wearily familiar. For men (as my partner found), the full extent of the daily threats and misogynistic hassling that possessing a vagina makes you subject to might be surprising and horrifying. RashDash throw these problems out to all of us, with an acknowledgement of the complexity involved – how, for instance, do men make good allies without turning the issue into a demonstration of their own “nice guy” status? – but also with a galvanising call to arms. This, they promise, is just the start of the fightback.