In their words: Catrina McHugh on creating Rattle Snake

As Rattle Snake comes to Soho Theatre, playwright Catrina McHugh MBE tells us more about the acclaimed play exploring coercive control.

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“Rattle Snake came about because Durham University and Durham Constabulary commissioned Open Clasp Theatre Company to train front-line police officers in dealing with coercive control.

“I interviewed women who rang the police for help. I spoke with academics who had co-commissioned the project, with Professor Evan Stark, who coined the phrase coercive control, and with women’s organisations. Then I wrote Rattle Snake and designed an interactive drama workshop.

“We trained just under 400 officers in bulletproof vests who dared us to make an impact. We did.

“In Rattle Snake we meet two women who are both involved with the same perpetrator, James.  Coercive controlling behaviours impact on their ability to think, feel and to escape. Both women are trapped, not only by the perpetrator but by the state. No one is in their corner.

“When thinking about Rattle Snake and the real-life women who inspired the story, I see the impact of domestic violence on their mental health. As we all know, mental ill health can be a result of domestic violence. It can also be used against victims/survivors to threaten and control.

Rattle Snake, by Catrina McHugh, at Soho Theatre
Rattle Snake, by Catrina McHugh, at Soho Theatre

“In the play, there is a family court scene in which the perpetrator tells the judge, ‘She’s mad’ and ‘unstable’ and ‘shouts at the kids’. How the state views mental health, the stigma and discrimination, becomes his weapon.

“I was given prompts to write this article and was particularly drawn to two: ‘Why are the issues worth tackling?’ and ‘Why is theatre useful in tackling these issues?’

“During the first leg of the tour I met a young man in a referral unit. He watched Rattle Snake and then asked to speak with me. With his teacher present, he told me about how his ‘real dad’ had been like the man in the play. He told me how his dad, like the man in the play, had moved on to other women, had more children and how his mother and the other women are now free.

“However, even though he is safe, this child is also triggered when his ‘real father’ tries to get in contact with him. I am especially proud of the children’s voices in the play. They are being heard and they need to be, as we know their mental health is also being affected and they are also in need of services and support.

“Why are these issues worth tackling? Because domestic violence and abuse affect us all. This isn’t a play about others. These issues are present in each and every one of our lives. We all know (or have been) someone in this situation.

Rattle Snake, by Catrina McHugh, at Soho Theatre
Rattle Snake, by Catrina McHugh, at Soho Theatre

“Coercive control is present in the majority of domestic-abuse cases. And the presence of coercive control means there is a higher risk of death (two women are killed every week), not only of the victim/survivor but the children.

“A recent study, Nineteen Child Homicides, found that in all cases the perpetrator had access to his children, with 12 of the families having access granted by the family court. It matters because we find ourselves, in 2017, living in a world where others feel a sense of entitlement to take away another person’s liberty. To control, threaten and annihilate them.

“Why is theatre useful in tackling these issues? The theatre Open Clasp holds the voices of the women who put their trust in us. We take plays out to diverse audiences, offering access to the arts to those hard-to-reach audiences as well as mainstream theatres. We have a huge responsibility to make the best theatre we can to ensure the biggest impact.

“Rattle Snake is doing just that. Theatre is unique; it’s live, playing out right in front of you. Audiences left are breathless, valued, empowered and angry… and I like that.

“I feel proud of the company, Rattle Snake and its impact. The show is powerful, stunning and beautiful. Yet as I sit here, typing this piece, and watch the show shine in front of audiences, I feel in such a strange position. That’s because I also see the women who informed this piece living the reality of what you see on stage. Life and art colliding.”

Rattle Snake plays at Soho Theatre from 24 to 28 October.