NEWCASTLE-BASED artistic director Catrina McHugh gently drops into the conversation that, as far as she’s aware, just one person has been prosecuted for the domestic abuse-related crime of coercive control since it became law late in 2015.

“I was asked about this when my play (Rattle Snake) first ran in June and I didn’t know. I think it’s quite a hard case to bring a conviction and domestic abuse is hard to prosecute as well. I think the penalty is a fine and five years or a fine. It’s not much,” says McHugh

“I think there is an epidemic and for all levels of cases for this particular project there were high levels of coercive control. If two women are killed every week and one-in-four women experience it in a lifetime and one-in-three women across the globe experience violence, it is about having power over someone,” she adds.

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The lead voice of Open Clasp theatre company has just been awarded an MBE for her play Key Change which relates the based-on-truth stories of Low Newton female prisoners.

McHugh unflinchingly takes on important female issues with her projects, but the latest had a more defined starting point in that Durham police was keen for its officers being introduced to the impact of coercive control, with the area’s Crime and Victims Commissioner Ron Hogg providing funding after Durham University commissioned the play.

“The description I’d give of coercive control is that someone has the intent to take control and power from another and this makes it a criminal offence. We were asked to get involved in the training of frontline officers and if the use of theatre and drama techniques could make a difference. Some victims and survivors had been interviewed to see how they felt the police in Durham had reacted and if they’d noted down coercive control or not. Did the women feel that it had happened in their relationship and was there threats and violence and were their lives micro-managed?” says McHugh.

She went on to interview the women from this study and created a script from what the women revealed about their lives.

“The idea was to look for this dynamic within domestic abuse because the police had to enforce this new law. We had to offer an idea of what the police were looking for and in the play you see a journey over 12 years of one woman and another over six years involving the same perpetrator,” says McHugh.

The scenarios involve women being told when to go out, what to wear, being degraded and having their phones checked. “There’s also control of their money and sex and how they smell and who they talk to. The idea is to totally isolate a woman and control everything, There is also the ‘If I don’t do this, then the threat is there’. The guy doesn’t need to physically hit her or murder her, but the threat is, ‘I will kill you and I will kill your children’. It’s a pattern of behaviour, but not a single incident. It’s every day and it’s really the police trying to figure out how this woman’s world has been mico-managed. The woman doesn’t know she can escape anymore,” she adds.

The police were shown a 40-minute pilot version and McHugh found that officers didn’t know the extent of coercive control and “how epic it was and gave them an opportunity to realise, ‘Oh that’s what it means’. Now when they walk into a house they have that story. As a theatre company the most we could do is ask, ‘What’s the biggest impact we can have with the police? They are the frontline officers that go out and if we make a brilliant piece of theatre that allows them to step into the shoes of the women they see on stage’. We have been going for 19 years and people can still remember the plays. We know it can change people. Around 98 per cent of the officers said their knowledge had improved since the training,” says McHugh.

“The police were up on their feet and acting in role as the perpetrator and the children. Durham Police have a good reputation anyway and they were amazing because this subject is difficult and looked at how to tackle the situation and role-played that. It was more, ‘How do you feel when he shouts at you’ and being able to ask one more question.”

PC Tony Miley was one of 398 officers at Durham Constabulary who took part in the training. He says: “This was, by a country mile, the most engaging, impactful and thought-provoking training session I have had in my 14-year career in the police. Very emotive topic and excellently portrayed by the two tremendously talented actors - it blew my socks off.”

Ron Hogg says: “It provided front-line officers with a unique opportunity to learn through theatre, so that they would further understand coercive control in domestic abuse, and the day-to-day incidents which victims suffer though this appalling crime.”

Christina Berriman-Dawson, who appeared in Key Change, plays the role of Suzy. Eilidh Talman, one of the original cast members in the police training sessions, will play Jen.

“When I was doing research I kept thinking, ‘Well at this point the guy’s going to be arrested’, but he’s not... even when there are clear threats being made to kill. The women on this project are still living under threat now,” says McHugh.

  • Rattle Snake (recommended age 13+), a joint Live Theatre and Open Clasp production, will premiere at Live, in Newcastle, (September 21 to 30), Box Office: live.org.uk or 0191-232-1232. before transferring to York Theatre Royal (October 17-21) 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk