Park Theatre, London – until 9 June 2018
Schism had my friend and I debating the perspectives and motivations of the two protagonists, which is always a sign of a great play. It is an intense two-hander, with believable characters speaking the playwright, Athena Stevens,’ naturalistic dialogue.
Schism works on personal and socio-political levels, in an intelligently witty way. For me, it is also about how different people react to or deal with obstacles thrown in their path.
The play begins with Jonathan McGuiness’ Harrison attempting to commit suicide, but he is thwarted and ultimately rescued by one of the 14-year-old students in the school where he teaches maths. Did I mention that not only is Stevens a brilliant writer but she also acts as the 14 year old?
She is the acerbic and sarcastic Catherine De Witt, a bright wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. Catherine asks for his help to be moved from the Special Ed class, where learning disabled children are repeatedly played cartoons, to mainstream classes as she is exceptionally bright. So Harrison rescues Catherine, enabling her to achieve her potential, getting her moved into mainstream education and giving her extra lessons.
McGuinness’ cynical yet vulnerable Harrison is a failed architect who is very bitter about his lack of success. Harrison is emotionally stunted and depressed and looks at life negatively, using his refrain “form follows function” he warns Catherine that she won’t succeed. He is convinced that because of her disability she will find it impossible to succeed. After all, look at him and he didn’t have her disadvantages, he was lauded when he graduated but never achieved his potential so started to teach.
It is later revealed that Harrison was offered jobs after graduating, but rejected them as not being good enough. He had all the opportunities but chose not to take them because of his own ego, or perhaps because of fear. Whereas Catherine had to fight to create opportunities and whilst she needed Harrison’s help to escape Special Ed class, have a proper education and to continue with further and higher education, you should still remember that it was Catherine who decided to act by breaking into Harrison’s home and cajoling him for help. Catherine is the catalyst, she created the opportunity, it was not handed to her on a plate. For me, this is one of the key issues. Catherine has the disadvantage of being from a poor background in addition to having unsupportive and disinterested parents. She also has to contend with a school which dumps her in a Special Ed class and the physical challenges which she has to manage, due to the built environment not being adapted for wheelchair users and people with disabilities. Catherine also has to deal with the sexism of a male dominated profession. So she is used to having to struggle and fight to get what she wants and she has the determination to do so. Yet Harrison with all the opportunities he had as a privileged white male was defeated, despite being lauded for his potential and receiving several job offers. He chose not to pursue any of them because life didn’t measure up to his expectations; he gave up at the first hurdle. I accept that Harrison provided her with a lot of help. Everyone at some point in their lives needs help, human beings need to cooperate and collaborate to survive and thrive. Catherine as the instigator, sought out Harrison, but she didn’t sit back and expect everyone to do everything for her, she used Harrison to achieve her ambitions, whilst retaining as much independence as possible. Perhaps Catherine was a project for Harrison, he rescued her, however, he didn’t own her, and neither did he make her successful, which he asserts. If she had been infected with Harrison’s defeatism she would have ended up teaching in the same school as him, instead of being a celebrated and successful architect.
Admittedly Catherine betrays Harrison, nevertheless, by repeatedly saying “you can’t” because form follows function, he was, albeit unintentionally, trying to stop her from reaching her goals. Because Harrison gave up on himself and his ambitions, perhaps he didn’t even want her to try to achieve hers. Harrison views life through obstacles placed in Catherine’s path rather than focusing on the brilliant things she is able to do as a highly intelligent and talented person.
I understood why Catherine insisted on maintaining her independence and having her own space. Harrison regarded Catherine as always needing his help; he wants to take care of Catherine. Perhaps Harrison’s arrested development only allows him to see a determined and vulnerable young girl. Even though he comes to see Catherine almost like a possession whom he “made” into star, it is still shocking how he behaves in reaction to something she did without informing him.
As you can tell I really enjoyed Schism, for the socio-political and psychological issues it raises. I also loved the the depiction of how an unlikely relationship develops and how the couple destroy their relationship, almost destroying each other in the process.
Schism is on at Park Theatre from 16 May to 9 June 2018.