Is it really the end of the world? When he was eleven, One (Nigel Francis) was sexually abused by a teacher. This might have been viciously traumatic and demoralising for a child to experience, but One is now forty and a martial arts supremo. The abuse which he suffered as a child hardly provides sturdy enough foundations for this play’s huge wobbling tower of megalomaniacal victimhood. Bald and mad, our man crouches in some sort of bunker, ranting against the world. He looks like a Bond villain whose screaming has frightened away the cat. Geoff Thompson‘s “Fragile,” which tells One’s story at the Pleasance Zoo, is shrill, hysterical, pompous, and entirely unconvincing on both a moral and a theatrical level.
Oh, but he was eleven! His teacher’s sweaty hands were tearing through cotton, groping at his girlish arse, at his tiny girlish cock. HE WAS ELEVEN! His father did not know, he was a good man, a good bloke, but he did not know! He went to the school and he shook the teacher’s hand and he trusted the teacher and he let his son stay at the school. HE WAS ELEVEN! If your stomach can hold down this paragraph, you have basically digested the whole play.
Francis overacts the piece, rattling and shuddering laboriously like an ancient sewing machine. Yet he is forced to do this because the drama simply doesn’t rise off the script. Repeatedly asserting that he “idolised” the dastardly teacher does nothing in itself to convey the impression of a boy idolising his teacher. There is consequently no authentic sense of horror or betrayal. The abuser is always a watery shadow rather than anything recognisably human.
Yep, I just don’t buy it. I imagine that sexual abuse is such a horrific thing because the victim is unable to fully hate their attacker. They cannot look at their abuser with fresh eyes and discount either their previous authority or the revelation of their weakness, to identify a target which can be taken down. But One just hisses at the old groper and pelts him with melodrama. It is impossible to understand why One cannot step lightly out of his memories and into the sunshine of adulthood. There may be good reasons for this, but the play fails to impose them on the audience. Aside from brief references to some Buddhist philosophy he has presumably studied, One is a sort of Peter Pan, bottled up in an everlasting childhood along with his supreme victimhood. He was eleven!
This character is repulsive. Somebody who is so totally absorbed in their own suffering, at the expense of everybody and everything else, has achieved a lurid, mesmerising ugliness. He scuttles frantically on the spot, contained completely within his own private anguish like a half-squashed cockroach, before popping in the heat and melting into a pool of narcissistic slime.
Oh no! At the end of the story we learn that his teacher has been arrested and charged with allegations of “historic” abuse. Did One have any responsibility to society to make his accusations earlier and thereby protect others? If you are thinking this then you have misunderstood the play. “Fragile” is not about society, it’s all about One and about how he has suffered. He was eleven! You might wonder whether One’s former school is financially liable for his suffering (because the abuse had occurred on its premises), and, for once in this play, a question of some interest arises. Should One’s almighty victimhood wash over the rooftops of an existing educational institution? Should the next generation pay for the sins of their forefathers? Again, if you are asking this question then you have missed the point of the play. HE WAS ELEVEN!