As dark as it is witty, Athena Steven’s Schism is a well-crafted tale of ambition, love and what happens when women succeed.
Schism opens with Harrison, a middle-aged maths teacher, presenting an angry monologue to a tape machine. He bitterly mentions a woman’s name: a lover? A protégé? I am both intrigued – and cringing – at his unbridled self-pity and anger towards this woman. If he were 20 years younger, he’d be typing this onto a Reddit forum for the involuntarily celibate. I must admit I’m initially unsure if it works; is this bad writing or a purposeful stab at a very particular brand of damaged masculinity?
As soon as Catherine (played by playwright Athena Stevens) enters, however, I’m convinced it must be the latter. Catherine is both written and played with wit and a brilliant sense of comic timing. She’s not only funny but extremely likeable, determined to overcome the difficulties she faces – and refusing to leave the teacher’s home until he promises to help her receive a better quality of education. And so begins the relationship that forms the central plot of Schism.
My strong dislike for Harrison waivers as their story commences. He seems to genuinely want to help Catherine and has no ulterior motive towards this relationship. This is soon interrupted by more angry tape recorder monologuing. It’s implied that she has somehow betrayed him – but from both experience of men and a general gut feeling about this middle-aged-would-be-incel, I wonder if she’s simply dared to refuse his romantic advances, or worse, claimed some form of success deemed unworthy of a women and only deserving of this angry white man who rants incessantly at non-responsive inanimate objects. I feel sorry for both Catherine and the tape recorder.
The relationship between the two characters becomes more and more disturbing as the narrative develops. There are moments between scenes where Harrison (Jonathan McGuiness) helps Catherine through costume changes. This blurred line between the actors and characters is very powerful as, colleagues on stage together, it could be read as McGuiness simply assisting Stevens (who uses a wheelchair) but within the context of Harrison and Catherine’s relationship, it feels both creepy and patronising. It seems these moments have been left purposefully ambiguous and it gives them a lot of potency.
What Schism does very cleverly is unpick the concept of the nice-guy: the idea that by providing emotional, and in this case, intellectual support to a woman, a man is owed something beyond her thanks or friendship. Whilst this is typically a man believing that kindness should be rewarded with sex, Stevens has interrogated it from a fresh angle. Harrison seems to feel Catherine owes him a future and a family at the expense of what she has fought to achieve. Because he has helped her get there and has not achieved anything of worth himself, he can’t see past his own ego to acknowledge her success or indeed her right to autonomy.
I come away from Schism feeling angry at the way women are expected to put their needs second, and that men cannot see women – especially disabled women – have the capacity to achieve more than them. But I am also hopeful, because plays like this are being written and produced with such skill and insight. We still have a long way to go, but thank god we have artists like Stevens along for the fight.