Anathema is a promising first piece of work from Bearded Dog Theatre, starting strong with difficult topics not often discussed on stage – specifically the issue of male rape. The show focuses on the horror, fear and fury that develops in response to rape: showing examples of when the subsequent emotional wounds and request for support, comes up against the dismissiveness and disbelief of the wider society.

It is a good exploration of the pure pain involved, however, do not expect it to provide any suggested answers to the questions it raises.

The piece starts with Jamie being forced by two of his friends into admitting that he had been raped at New Year. We follow the run up to the rape using flashbacks, getting to know a wide circle of first year students as they form friendships in the run up to New Years. These flashbacks are interspersed with present day as Jamie and his friends try to deal with this revelation, and pass the horrific news around their friend group, only to be rebutted by some of the perpetuated myths about male rape. The piece’s main success was in building up this roster of characters – most of whom you like – and leaving the giant question mark hanging over them, as to who was the one who did it. The questions of which one of these supposed friends has a dark secret.

Nial Kiely, the writer and also playing Jamie, has a real sense for an awkward conversation, at points really hitting the nail on the head with the language of student chatter. Including a stunning example of everything I loathe about the drinking game Never Have I Ever – and its ability to produce uncomfortable situations. At other points, the dialogue felt very forced to deliberately drag the conversation into the right place – it’s tough to subtly slip in statistics. The cast brought the text to life reassembly well, they made a convincing enough group of students. They handled the heavy material well, at some points managing to conjure up a level of horror that made you want to look away. Although it would be nice if the women could get more variation in their roles other than bitch or Mother Teresa.

Sadly, for a show that intends to raise issues and ideas about male rape it never goes beyond the horror and drama in the actual event and immediate aftermath. Jamie comes up against society’s ignorance, and struggles with his intense emotional reaction. We even see Jamie’s actual rape as the finale to the piece in a moment of high drama. There is no sense of providing an alternative narrative to the myths, no exploration for Jamie’s ability to continue to exist with this burden as part of his life. No hope or valuable lessons for the future. Just the raw horror of the deed itself and the initial destructive power.

What was particularly concerning, was the poor handling of the sub-plot regarding Clara. Clara is a virgin when she comes to University and proceeds to be pressured into sex by her boyfriend; something she remains furious about later in the piece. For a show about tackling the stigma of rape, the fact that this is never addressed as rape in the show is very worrying.

If you’re interested in plays about underrepresented social issues, this one is for you. It is a good exploration of the pure pain involved, however, do not expect it to provide any suggested answers to the questions it raises.

Reviews by M Johnson

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The Blurb

Anathema. (n). ‘Someone or something that one vehemently dislikes.’ Jamie was raped at a New Year's Eve party, but it has taken him a month to tell anyone. Whilst his friends struggle to accept the truth, Jamie reflects on what occurred since he moved to university and the events that led up to his rape. This tragic story tackles the typically taboo subjects of male rape and rape culture through the eyes of a group of students.