Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Peep (ii & iii) – Pleasance

Much more pointful is Natural Shocks's Peep, directed by Donnacadh O'Briain. It's a set of three shows about sex. Or where we as a culture seem to have got to with our thinking on the subject.

Yes, yes. All the shows in Edinburgh that aren't selling themselves on their debt to Eastern European Clowns are selling themselves on the possibility of a bit of a sexy frisson. (Though never both, thank Christ.) It's the oldest trick in the Edinburgh advertising book. But no matter. Peep manages to rise a bit above that by virtue of three main factors. One: its entire approach seems to start at a point of already archly deconstructing that whole advertising strategy. Two: in a funny way, set up in its own kinky rubber tent (you watch the show in a booth all of your own behind one-way-mirrored cellophane) erected out the back of the Pleasance's parking lot, it also manages to return a sense of grubbiness to proceedings. Three: it's got a new play by Leo Butler (Royal Court writer and tutor of the Court's Young Writers' Programme), and two promising Young Writers of New Writing.

I'm going to try not to get too bogged down in the whole New Writing/New Work debate in this/these reviews – for the latest, excellent despatches on that subject, read Catherine Love and Kat Joyce.


Here, with Peeps 2 and 3 (they actually have proper titles – 69 and Meat, respectively), we've got something that could be quickly described as Leo Butler's tribute to the Magnetic Field's 69 Love Songs set to the tune of Attempts On Her Life, and a fairly standard, if sparky and intelligent two-hander by Pamela Carter.

Obviously, formally, I'm much more interested in the former. Oddly, intellectually, I was much more interested by the latter.

Butler's piece is a breakneck whizz through 69 scenes of contemporary sexuality.  Inside Peep's antiseptic neon-lit white box (designed by Signe Beckmann), the four actors (Brett Fancy, Karen French, Bella Heesom, Ifan Meredith), dressed in simple white linen cargo pants and vests, talk, shout, canoodle and scream their way through. Whether the scenes are all entirely new scenarios or whether some refer back to earlier pieces isn't clear, but doesn't matter. The impression is of a kaleidoscope of human experience (or, perhaps, mostly white, western, capitalist sexual experience). Through this miasma of lust and trauma – and there's quite a lot of trauma – a possible birth-to-death pattern is discernible. From the sexual neuroses of a breast-feeding mother to death from sexually transmitted diseases.

Given the peep-show booth set-up of the transmission here, it did strike me that possibly the gender politics of the presentation were a bit skewed here. A male director, a male writer, and the only bit of kit-offery was a topless woman at one point. That felt a bit unbalanced; and didn't seem to be making any real point about wider gender imbalances. And beyond that, there was a sense that the most relate-able experiences did seem to be male. Of course, I'm a bloke too, so that could be as much to do with my own gendered self-interest as anything, but there was also the fact that I'd argue there was also a lack of equivalent buffness and age differentials. (Dear God, it's hard to put these things tactfully or indeed at all.) But, well: one older man; no older woman. And the gym-time/genes-luck ratio falling somewhat more heavily on the female side of the, um, colon.

Also, I think everyone only ever played their own gender. Although, in a cast of four, dressed in more-or-less identical clothes, when nothing was specified, it was, of course, impossible to guess.

[As a friend-colleague and I were reflecting last night, once you switch off the naturalistic assumption that performers are playing someone roughly equivalent to themselves, at least in terms of age, skin colour and gender, plays actually dealing with any of those issues suddenly become really difficult to read.]

Still, for those misgivings, this is still a decent production of an interesting script. In a lot of ways, I'd be quite interested to see a few more productions of the piece staged in difference circumstances. It is, after all, one of those pieces of writing that offers the possibility of near-infinite stagings.


By contrast, Carter's Meat (and, my God, if I had a pound of flesh for every play that's been called Meat over the years (there's already another one at this Fringe), I'd have enough for a reasonably sized pig by now) is formally pretty straight-forward. And is played as such. A man, Dave, played by a man (the excellently named Brett Fancy), and a woman, Sarah, played by a woman (Karen French), are having a conversation in their flat – which the white walls of the peepshow interior allows you to imagine without much difficulty, with the addition here of a pot plant and a modern armchair.

They are in a relationship, and she is confronting him about the pornography he's been watching on their/his(?) computer. For the first few minutes, I did worry this was going to be a fairly guessable tirade against “pornography” (yes; all of it), with complaints about “plastic women” and “women shaving so they look more like children” and so on and so on.

But then the thing has a twist [impossible to discuss without revealing, so SPOILER ALERT] – it turns out that Sarah has not only discovered the “porno” (Carter distractingly opts for the eighties/, Amis-favoured term throughout), but discovered she finds it quite sexy.

There follows a full and frank description of the particular film she watched (two men, one woman – some evocative descriptions of how they look and what they do) and they discuss how it made her feel, and how she thought the actors in the film felt. It's sort of about the ethics of pornography, and there are interventions in the form of noises from the street?/canal path? outside. At one point there is a woman screaming and a dog barking. They don't investigate. This might well be a link to the whole pornography/rape thing, but then again, it might not be.

The piece makes an interesting observation about the mechanics of watching pornography, where Sarah suggests that presumably you're meant to identify with one of the protagonists, or antagonists, or whatever they are in pornography, and that watching this women being fucked by two men, she found herself identifying not with the women, but with the men.

And, where Butler's play takes the language that surrounds sex – it feels like it covers nearly all of it – and smashes it together into a kind of bleak modernist poem for the stage, Carter uses her characters to explore the poverty and periodic embarrassment of the language of porn. “My, well, I suppose I have to say 'pussy'” says Sarah at one point, before asking, “Is there a porn-word for 'mons pubis'?”

Both plays feel too short to achieve any sort of perfection or completeness, but seen together (although this is difficult, since the three pieces run in rep in blocks of three over each day, starting at the top of each hour, somewhere there's always going to be a three-hour gap...) they do open up an interesting, intelligent-feeling and frank front on the current conversation about how we function as sexual adults in the 21st century.

1 comment:

Donnacadh O'Briain said...

Interestingly...

I'm going to do a one day only complete restage of 69 on Monday... Come along if you fancy a look at the little experiment.

Donnacadh