The idea of the “unadaptable” novel has been repeatedly debunked, with film and theatre directors finding ways to bring works of impossible abstraction or density to the stage or screen.
Fitting neatly into the category of “possibly unadaptable” was Little Scratch, the debut novel from Rebecca Watson, a free-flowing stream of consciousness that blurs the line between poetry, prose and typographical illustration. Following a day in the life of an office assistant coming to terms with a recent trauma, it records every thought, impulse and reflex, sometimes taking up half a page or more with a single word – “filling, filling, filling…” as people squeeze onto a train, for instance – or placing single words or phrases within a sea of question marks.
Director Katie Mitchell proves even this can be translated to the stage, with a little ingenuity. Her play features not one voice but four, with the woman’s internal monologue split between a quartet of actors.
They appear on a black stage wearing neutral clothing, the only props being a selection of mundane objects placed on two coffee tables: towels, cups of water, bags of crisps, all used to make sound effects. Only the actors’ faces are lit, reminding me of the video to Bohemian Rhapsody.
The separating of the text into four voices – one male – gives a real forward momentum to the unnamed woman’s internal dialogue, with the actors variously talking over each other, fading in and out or harmonising.
On the downside, this simplifies the novel’s structure, with the four actors representing identifiable parts of the woman’s personality: ego and id, rational and emotional, fragile and resilient. At times it feels like a more harrowing version of Pixar’s Inside Out.
And harrowing is the word – neither the book nor the play pulls any punches. This is a story about a woman trying to hold things together in the face of a terrible sexual assault, exploring feelings of rage, grief and shame. Her anxiety pervades everything, from buying soup to going to the toilet. Even with its moments of levity and humour, it makes for a challenging and uncomfortable evening.
This is further heightened by the painfully upright seating and general lack of space in Hampstead Theatre’s smaller stage, and by midway through, my own internal monologue was something along the lines of: “Cramped back, too hot, why did I wear so many layers, slight pain in chest, probably not having a heart attack, how much longer?”
Little Scratch is well acted and cleverly adapted, though it will primarily be of interest as an addendum to the novel, something for Watson’s growing legion of fans, rather than a work that stands on its own eight feet.