(Online) Theatre Review: All in Your Head
Written by Tola Ositelu
Naomi (Naomi Sparrow) is over the moon. After a string of false starts, she’s finally met a man with whom she feels compatible and is interested in a serious relationship. She’s so elated she begins documenting their relationship through daily video diaries. However, it’s not long before she goes from walking on air to walking on egg shells. The subtle signs of controlling or manipulative behaviour she initially overlooks become the rule and not the exception. Bright and outgoing, she retreats into herself whilst her boyfriend gradually isolates her from friends and family. His occasional romantic gesture and the ‘chasing-the-dragon’ effect of their first dates make her reluctant to leave. But as the situation escalates, she’s faced with the choice of salvaging the relationship or her own sanity.
It’s been almost a year since the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Nearly a year since UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, coined the term ‘shadow-pandemic’ in reference to the perturbing spike in Gender-Based Violence during this period. In the first three weeks of the UK lockdown alone, there was a threefold increase in the number of women and children killed as a result of domestic abuse.
This is the backdrop to director and creator Lucy Dear and writer Safaa Benson-Effiom’s piece All in Your Head. Originally part of CPT’s postponed Calm Down, Dear feminist festival in May 2020, now re-imagined for the virtual format, this one-woman play brings to life the stories of myriad survivors of GBV. Their first-hand accounts are interweaved throughout.
Dear and Benson-Effiom avoid wife-beating clichés. There are no black-eyes or swollen-lips. The abuse is forever off-screen, for which theatre-by-Zoom is extremely apt. The play’s title itself refers to the level of mind-games -now commonly known as gas-lighting – needed to sustain this sort of abuse. The audience knows exactly where things are heading long before the protagonist does. Yet it doesn’t make the slow-burning unease any less terrifying. Naomi goes from swaying to soul and R&B classics in her kitchen to a dull, tense existence where the music falls silent altogether.
The creative team, including Sparrow, nonetheless ensure the protagonist is not some caricature of victimhood. All in Your Head portrays how easily an assertive and lively woman can become trapped in a coercive situation. Still, even whilst second-guessing her better judgment, she takes control as best she can. There’s a reason why those who eventually get out of abusive relationships are called survivors and not victims.
All in Your Head also throws up uncomfortable questions about internalised misogyny and the insidious effects of negative social norms. Men’s approval can be over-valorised to the extent that a desire to please, so often inculcated in women, eclipses self-preservation. Although anyone can be a victim of abuse, the gendered aspect of GBV cannot be over-stated. (It thus beggars belief when, during the post-show discussion, a so-called community spokeswoman plays down its significance in favour of cultural factors. As if race and gender don’t intersect.)
Never an easy subject to broach, this compelling homage pays high respect indeed to the women whose stories it gives a voice.
Cast: Naomi Sparrow
Created and Directed by Lucy Dear
Written by Safaa Benson-Effiom
Design – Anna Reid
Sound Design – Helen Almeida