By BRUCE DENNILL
Natasha Sutherland stars in her own adaptation of journalist and television and radio personality Tracy Going’s hard-hitting memoir Brutal Legacy, which deals with Going’s growing up with a violent, alcoholic father and later – in the glare of the national news spotlight – her abuse at the hands of a romantic partner; a relationship that led to protracted court proceedings in pursuit of justice against her abuser.
This is such a terrible, difficult story. Why choose this particular material to bring to the stage?
Tracy looks at the effect her childhood had on her – that’s the “brutal legacy” of the book’s title. She had an abusive father, and what he did in their family was witnessed but covered up in the community she lived in. That created a cognitive dissonance for her; she psychologically believed that things wouldn’t change; that other people didn’t care. If we can start conversations around that topic with this play, it would be wonderful.
In terms of choosing the material, it just sort of happened. Lesedi was directing me in a play called Meet Me At Dawn. She’d picked up the book somewhere and came to me; it was one of those … sisterhood moments. She showed it to me said, “I don’t know why, what or how, but we’re on a journey together here.
I find myself drawn to this subject. There’s a big wound between the masculine and the feminine that needs to be healed. I’m a mom of two boys. I want them to understand this; to grow up in a world that’s better for them and for others.
It’s a polarising topic, but a good trigger. And besides all of that, Tracy’s prose is beautiful. She has such clever timelines, reflecting two perspectives – as a child and as an adult – and it’s already a strong story, well told. And it’s a universal tale – sadly – so you don’t have to know Tracy at all for it to be effective. And something I particularly love is that having the different timelines alongside each other helps the audience to understand that things are changing – advances are being made, even if they’re frustratingly slow.
We need to plant a seed to make people think; to make them angry.
Theatre is often escapism, even if it’s not light and fluffy, but this play brings hard realities right into people’s faces. How do you get people to choose something like this as their option for a night out?
That’s the biggest challenge with the material. This is not a superhero movie… But there are people who are truth-seekers, and – and I don’t want to sound all New Age here, but it’s true – the spirit of this story is bigger than us. Also, Tracy – and me in my small way as I play her – is careful to frame it well. This is not a #MeToo or #MenAreTrash moment.
We don’t exaggerate anything on stage. There’s no Hollywood ending. All of this really happened. There is a sense of triumph, though. Tracy survived, but there is no sentiment.
The educational value of a piece like this is obvious. Were there considerations regarding depictions of certain moments in the story to make them appropriate for specific audiences, like schoolkids?
This could work for high school kids. For kids in difficult situations themselves, it could trigger something. But the fact that it’s very stylised should also make it easier to watch for younger audiences. Kids are often so desensitised now, so the presence of live actors might make help to get the message across – the choreography between the actors on stage makes it incredibly visceral.
And what of keeping the momentum of the discussion moving forward? Can the piece be adapted for festival set-ups?
The core of the story is strong enough to be stripped down to festival status. It doesn’t need to have huge sets and backdrops like a musical or something like that. And Tracy’s ability to reflect without playing the victim card is inspiring – it’s a message that will reach people wherever it goes.
Going to where Tracy was as an actress: it’s true that it’s your job and it’s what you do, but it’s a dark place.
The subject matter does play a huge role. Lesedi keeps telling us: “Stop thinking of this as a play – tell the story!” And there’s the lovely technical challenge of playing a character who is reflecting on something.
Serving Tracy’s text is so important, but there is also the need to carry the spirit of the piece, which requires going deeper and deeper into it. Also, you need to be aware that you are facilitating a journey for the audience. I have to say – in my previous play I played a dead person, but this is much more wearing!
Tracy waited 20 years to write this book for a reason. There was no desire to be provocative for being provocative’s sake.
There are tough moments. At one point, the two timelines collide, and there are two incidences of abuse happening at the same time. That’s hard to see… But you come to understand that you can’t go straight from victim to forgiveness. There is also compassion involved. And righteous anger.
After this run – and any others Brutal Legacy might have, how do you see the discussion it encourages continuing? In a way, your being involved positions you as a sort of spokesperson – at least from the perspective of some outsiders.
I don’t know how we can open up a forum for that. The story has already moved us to such a degree that we’re putting on a play about it. If the need for change is to carry on, it will, somehow.
As it relates to the whole #MeToo and #MenAreTrash situations, there’s a lot to be said in terms of the statistics around abuse, but the more we polarise matters, the less chance there is of coming together to heal.
My mom was always telling us stories, so I grew up with a lot of classical archetypes. I talk a lot to my sons about “new kings” versus “old kings” – leadership versus power and control over someone.
One of my sons said to me recently that he doesn’t want to be a feminist; he wants to be egalitarian. I think that’s a good start.