A young girl is strapped to a chair; body limp, breathing shallow. Her face is covered with just a small slit allowing her access to breathe. This is Alice, the girl who begins this unearthly story.
*trigger warning, this play mentions racial slurs and manipulative behaviour*
That Face, by Polly Stenham, debuted on the 20 April 2007 at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in London. With a star-studded cast including, Felicity Jones, Matt Smith and Lindsay Duncan, the play was named one of The Times Top Twenty plays of the Decade, as well as receiving three Olivier Award nominations.
Although I have never witnessed the performance first-hand, the script alone is animated enough to be one of the most skilfully tragic plays I’ve read through its intimate telling of dysfunctional family life.
The story follows the lives of brother and sister, Mia and Henry, as they try and navigate their way through their teenage years. Their lives are controlled by their mother, Martha, who’s turbulant tantrums and abusive behaviour drive them both to a life filled with alcohol and drugs.
Mia is our first introduction to this family. She has tied a young girl named Alice to a chair with a beanie over her head, as if she were a hostage. They are in Mia’s boarding school, and she is attempting to recreate some kind of initiation on the young girl, with the help of an older student Izzy.
Yet Mia takes it a step far when she unintentionally gives Alice a huge dosage of Valium that she stole from her mother. Izzy’s demeanour is remorseful, Mia is unashamed. She speaks candidly, whilst almost tormenting Izzy’s fear of punishment.
Izzy (nearly in tears) This is it. We’re screwed. I won’t be a prefect, which will fuck up my UCAS, my mum…Oh God.
Mia snorts with laughter. Izzy spins around to face her.
Mia Sorry. It’s just…the prefect thing.Scene 1, Page 15
This is the main plot of the play, Mia and Izzy violently attack Alice when she is incapable of fighting back. With the high dosage of Valium in her system, Alice becomes unresponsive which leads the girls to panic and send for help. This action causes the school to subsequently contact Mia’s Father, Hugh, who no one has seen for years.
The reappearance of Hugh is the driving fear of this family. His return threatens the dysfunctional routine the family has set for itself. This is particularly problematic for both Henry and Martha, who’s visceral relationship is now at risk.
The man of the house and a replacement in the bed
The most intriguing storyline of this piece is the developing relationship between Henry and Martha. Henry is the plays protagonist and is constantly caught in the crossfires between his sister, mother and Izzy, who becomes romantical involved with Henry after the boarding house incidence.
Mia and Henry are close, connected through their shared pain and childhood struggles. The catalyst of this? Martha. A woman not unlike Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’; “a fragile, damaged creature teetering wildly on the edge of a catastrophe curve.”
Although Martha’s erratic behaviour pushes Mia away, it brings Henry ever closer into her world. They often share a bed, draw together, and are repeated seen inappropriately snuggling into each other.
Henry is 18, yet from context alone this isn’t always noticeable. His affection towards his mother is childish, with him repeatedly calling her “Mummy” and playing along with her fictious games of “solider boy”.
The Jocasta complex
Although never explicit, these instances in some way explore the Jocasta complex; a term which describes a mother as having sexual desires for their child.
Martha is often seen hiding and destroying Henry’s clothes, asking him to take his clothes off in front of her and begging for him to sleep in her bed. He is the replacement husband; she uses him as a fill a void that was left when Hugh did. The title of the play itself could be suggestive of the resemblence between her Hugh and Henry; as if she has transfixed his face to her son’s body.
We are continually bombarded with discomfort as we see Henry squirming away from his mother’s grasp during moments of inappropriate touching. Most notably, we see Martha’s jealously overcome her as she gives Henry a “lovebite” to compete with the one that Henry’s new girlfriend has given him.
Yet this behaviour is not unheard of in this family. Martha’s dependency on Henry transcends the boundaries of a normal mother/son relationship. She is jealous of the attention that he has given another woman, and as a result marks his skin to remind him that he is hers.
Although Henry is upset with the actions his mother takes, he allows them to happen. He loves her, he cares for her and is completely devoted to her. Her inability to function due to her alcohol dependency has left Henry the ‘man of the house’, seeing it as his duty to protect her.
As stated by the British Theatre Guide Henry “very nearly gives Mum-Martha his body in a final effort to retain her sanity.” In doing so, he would be completing every role a father fulfils.
This relationship is the pinnacle of the play. Although we are uncomfortable with their somewhat oedipal behaviour, we have great sympathy for the sacrifices that Henry has made in order to protect his mother from the outside world.
He has given up his life, friends, relationships and education in order to take care of her. When the world around them tries to break them apart and shatter the life he has made them, his response is heart breaking.
‘Cause, you see – (Spits the word.) Daddy, you left me here all by myself. So I did what I though you should have done. Taken care of her. Taken very good care of her. Like she was broken. ‘Cept I thought I could fix her. Thought I’d do anything to fix her. Used to wish it on eyelashes. – HenryScene 8, Page 91
A slight downfall
My main reservation about this play is the character of Hugh and the underdevelopment of his relationship with both Martha and his children. We know that Hugh leaves the family to live in Hong Kong with his new family, yet we never really understand why this has happened and the actions that took place.
The ambiguity of this situation translates to the script, but this for me only made his character less developed. I did not know the kind of man he was, and this neither bored nor interested me, it just made him seem irrelevant to the plot.
However, this instead allowed for a greater insight into Henry and Martha’s relationship, and further solidifies Henry’s role as “lover, nurse and playmate”.
Placing him as a ‘hot shot’ broker in Hong Kong leant itself to many negative stereotypes, including the additions of racial slurs that Martha was able to use against his wife. This to me seems inappropriate, especially when this behaviour was not met by any defence.
As stated by the Guardian “I wasn’t sure whether Stenham was attacking the destruction of the nuclear family or a class system that turns women like Martha into victims”. I would argue that the system hasn’t just failed Martha, it has failed her children. It allowed their Father to move across continents and pay pennies towards their education. It allowed Henry to drop out of school in order to take care of his mother, without any extra help or support. It allowed Mia to bring drugs into school (a high fee-paying boarding school no less!) and buy her way out of the consequences.
In spite of this, That Face is a gut-wrecking story surround the complexity of a family broken apart by manipulation and abuse. It shows us the unfair class systems that leave families in ruin, and the lengths a son will go to save his mother from becoming a victim.