So, I recently went to see a play called “Endless Second.”
As with much theatre, especially niche works from emerging writers and artists, there’s a good chance that most people who read this review won’t actually get to see this play. Which is a shame, given how good it was.
Still, I want to share my thoughts, because it’s a fantastic example of creative story-telling that shows sex and consent at their best. It also shows non-consent at its most misunderstood and offers a narrative for how abusers might take responsibility for their actions.
CONTENT WARNING for discussion of rape (and spoilers).
There is only one thing I would suggest changing about this play and that’s the title. ‘Second’ can mean more than one thing in English and I totally misunderstand the writer’s intentions to begin with. Really, it’s about an endless moment – the experience of the play’s female character, when her boyfriend rapes her.
A collaboration between Theatre 503 and Cut The Cord (which promotes new writing and international theatre co-operation, particularly between the UK and Scandinavian countries), it’s the first fully produced work by Theo Toksvig-Stewart.
Until I read the blurb afterwards, I honestly thought a woman had written it. The female part was brilliantly scripted (there are only two parts in the play). What’s more, the #metoo section – where the boyfriend lectures a fellow male student about white, male, middle class privilege – was on point. I guess I didn’t think a man would take time out of his busy life to write a play about how men need to take responsibility.
But evidently, a man did. And it was Theo Toksvig-Stewart – who played the boyfriend, alongside Madeleine Gray.
How it starts
I wanted to see the play because of this advert for it:
Endless Second is a play about consent within a relationship, and examines how perpetrators can take responsibility for their actions. It challenges how we perceive ourselves and explores how acceptance can lead to reconciliation.
Although I expected sexual abuse, I wasn’t expecting the context of said abuse to be a dynamic, fun, mutual and non-controlling relationship. (Not that I’m complaining.)
The start of the play explores the two meeting and hitting it off, both students on an acting course. We see their relationship become sexual – and how that happens consensually and is fun for both of them. Then, further into their relationship, she gets very drunk one evening; she isn’t up for sex, but he has sex with her anyway.
And yes, this is rape.
How sex was portrayed
The story is a splicing together of the two characters (a) talking to each other and (b) talking to the audience describing the other’s actions. So, although the sex scenes aren’t physically enacted, they are described in detail and voice-acted, with dialogue darting back and forth between the actors.
This meant the audience could be immersed in the emotion, excitement and anticipation of the sex, but without it being too much. To put it another way, the form of presentation didn’t dwarf the story or the characters, but it was still authentic to character and nature of sex itself.
Meanwhile, the each-character-describes-what-the-other-person-is-doing device was particularly strong during the rape scene. As she names the various ways in which he caresses her, he intersperses each one saying, “She lies on her back.” To me, it hammered home the lack of active consent from her side and how that just didn’t register for him. Somewhere along the way the narrative flips and he describes his actions and she describes her experience – including how a second can feel like forever.
The aftermath of the rape
The rest of the play explores how the rape affects their relationship: how she takes a while to articulate that this incident was rape, and how he is willing to say he’s sorry he hurt her, but unwilling to admit to rape.
It struck me that this narrative of rape is not one that I’ve seen explored often. The boyfriend is a pretty decent guy in many respects; he isn’t entitled and he doesn’t have an appetite for control. But that doesn’t change the fact that he raped her and he can’t fix it and make it all OK.
Meanwhile, everything about how the woman reacts felt real. How she stays in relationship, even has an orgasm with him the following day; how she thinks her stress is because of her studies, how she blames herself, how she wants to express how she feels but doesn’t have the words. How she begins to realise and how she tries to explain it to him. “OK, I’m going to say something and I really need you to accept it.” My goodness, how her words resonated.
And he accepts it a bit, but not entirely. Meanwhile the façade of their relationship continues and they try to make the effort, but then she’s triggered watching a rape scene from a play.
Everything about the cycle of her emotions felt authentic to the accounts of rape that I’ve read and heard from other people. Trying to make the relationship work. Not quite able to articulate why it isn’t working. Wanting to believe the best about him.
The whole play takes place over the course of three years – which again, spoke to me about how the emotional cycle of sexual assault isn’t quick.
As they became more distant (she confronts him for not specifically apologising for raping her) I began to wonder how or where the play was going to end. As it so happened, I think the final scene is my favourite.
How it ends
They’re sitting on a park bench after a holiday from university. She says that she told her mother that she’d been raped. She then says that, in response, her mother shared her own rape story. He replies that he told his mother that he’d raped his girlfriend. And he says, “I’m sorry you weren’t the first to hear me say it.”
I loved this line; it was such a powerful, but unstilted way for him to take responsibility. He wasn’t following a scripted “I’m sorry for raping you” apology. Instead it struck me as showing he was genuine.
After the play had finished, I asked the guy next to me if the male characterisation rang true. He nodded; he said that the way the male character took time to realise the significance of what he’d done was something that felt authentic.
Consent in the era of #metoo
I nearly didn’t go and see the play, but I’m so glad I did.
It takes seriously the effect of rape – even rape in a long-term relationship, but without blaming the victim. It struck me afterwards that although this was scripted as two acting students at university (complete with strong language throughout), its premise is easily transferable to a marital context.
We need stories and portrayals like this.
We need to show what fun, consensual sex is like – just as it was in the first two sex scenes. And we need to show how damaging rape is – even in a context of an ongoing relationship.
We live in a time when too many myths about consent abound. In a survey commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition just last year, only 67% of Britons surveyed said it would “always or usually” be rape if a woman is not up for sex with her long term male partner but sex happens anyway. As many as 24% said it would “never or not usually” be rape with another 9% not knowing or not wanting to answer. Seriously – go look at the data tables. Fortunately, it’s a little better when it comes to sex with a woman who is “very drunk or asleep”; 89% think it’s always or usually rape, but that still means 1 in 10 either think it isn’t rape or don’t know.
And which statistic would apply to the situation shown in Endless Second? They’re in a long term relationship, she’s very drunk, nearly asleep, but conscious enough to say “not tonight” followed by “no”?
Meanwhile, we also live in a time when mainstream online pornography has become the first reference point for many young people’s understanding of sex. If you speak to Laura Bates at the Everyday Sexism Project, she’ll tell you the solution can’t just be keeping young people away from this content – as much as parents might want that. Rather, we need spaces for young people to ask questions and better representation of sex. If you ask me, honest and positive portrayals of sex, like what I saw in Endless Second, are part of the answer.
As for the discussion of how abusers might take responsibility – yes, we need that too. Every situation is different and I’m not for a minute suggesting that victims should be forced to ‘reconcile’ with their abusers (or be anywhere near them). Even so, I think we need to ask when and how relationships might survive and grow beyond abusive behaviours, particularly in the era of #metoo.
I’m reminded of an interview in the NY Times, where Tarana Burke, who founded the original #metoo movement, said (emphasis mine):
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the rage because it’s a righteous rage. This is not people just angry to be angry. These are people who are hurt. One of the things I want to do at some point soon is to call for a healing.
All in all, Endless Second is a fabulous piece of theatre that takes us in the right direction on so many levels.
Any time the script becomes available, I’m going to want a copy.
Pictures from the production I saw are on Cut the Cord’s website.