Every day in the news there is a story about somebody in authority being put on trial for sexually exploiting a trusting subordinate. A fraction of the victims, however, turn out to be duds or hysterics. “Stain” is a new play which is written by Mark Westbrook and brought to the Surgeons Hall by the Glasgow multimedia company Tartan Spartan. It is almost gorgeously squalid, with enough complexity in the characterisation to obscure the fact that you are basically watching a bloody great argument.
The title reminds me of a line from an old song by Polly Jean Harvey, in which she moans about being “left with nothing but your stain.” For Amy (Sorcha Groundsell), a pupil who has tried and failed to blackmail her history teacher, her whole life is now a stain. She was once bound for medical school, but she has been knocked down a few pegs to become a convicted blackmailer and a fixture in the local biscuit factory. She is a person of such conventional middle-class determination that she assumes that she will never change the world as a manual labourer. Yet she remains histrionically manipulative and power-crazed. You can only imagine what havoc she is wreaking at that biscuit factory.
She blames everything on her teacher Dave Reilly (Tom Moriarty), the man who she had previously tried to blackmail for not giving her history assignment an A grade. We might concede a little ground to her by agreeing that Mr Reilly is something of a pig. He writes Amy off from the beginning because he regards her elder brother as the intelligent one. Next, he appears to be motivated by envy at her sense of middle-class “entitlement” or even by a murky sexual instinct to humiliate her. He is the wretchedly trendy teacher, suddenly devoid of any dignity once things get difficult, but his victory over Amy is down to a modicum of swinish cunning as well as luck. As he himself points out, rather grandly, he has won.
Both actors wring every last drop of gruesomeness out of their characters. “Stain” is like a modern-day Punch and Judy, with Amy’s Molotov cocktail replacing the truncheon as the most critical prop. When Mr Reilly loses it with Amy and he gives her an infinitely well-deserved punch, it seems an error that he does not cry out, “that’s the way to do it!” You might protest that “Stain,” in all seriousness, warns about the current blinkered “we must believe the victims” culture, or about the collapse of authority in the classroom. This might be a valid interpretation whilst the play is still getting going, but by the end the power struggle between the two characters has become so intense that all morality has been left far behind.
Like Punch and Judy, the two characters are built from the same stuff. There are moments of a faint “we’re not so unalike, you and I” consciousness between them. Mrs Reilly walks out on her husband after it is revealed that he visits a “Barely Legal” website, and so Amy is evidently more sophisticated than her nemesis’ actually legal partner. “Stain” leaves us with the impression that Mr Reilly’s victory is just temporary; that Amy will recover from this humiliation just as she has recovered from all that came before. What will this beautiful character do next?