Friday, 24 August 2012

Strong Arm – Underbelly

Доверяй, но проверяй

“Trust is good, control is better” attr. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

If there's a deeper theme underlying the various configurations of hope and despair, and plays about the future, or about young people, at this year's festival then it might be characterised as being about control. Or about power and powerlessness. Noting this might be just about the most obvious thing in the world, since you could convincingly argue that all theatre is essentially about power and powerlessness. However, it does feel pertinent to bring it up here.

In an unexpected way, Finlay Robertson's Strong Arm makes a neat male counterpart to Caroline Horton's Mess. It's a first-person monologue about a twentysomething called Roland Poland who gets addicted to body-building. What's immediately striking is the extent to which actual weights-training is only a small part of his minutely described regimen. It's also an eating disorder by any other name. Ok, so it's eating extremely healthily, but the privations and strict observance seem incredibly similar. It's all carefully weighed portions of chicken and rice (brown in the summer, white in the winter). Food reduced to quantity and calorie, rather than as any sort of a pleasure. And vitamin supplements, protein drinks, muscle enhancement drinks.

The only real difference is the intent. For Josephine in Mess, the intent is to lose weight. For Roland in Strong Arm, the intent is not so much to loose his initial copious excess weight, but to supplement muscle. He starts out overweight, but he doesn't loose the weight so much as transform it into fat. At one point he observes that he's seventeen stone, but all of it is now muscle.

The text speaks urgently and directly about contemporary society. Perhaps part of why, I don't especially buy Matt Trueman's thesis that The Shit (which I've not seen) is somehow an improvement on Mess because it talks more about external factors is for the same reason I don't believe, for example, that Mike Bartlett's My Child: “[should've] had more space for social criticism... Who, one would like to know, is responsible for creating the kind of selfish society we now inhabit?

When a play is so clearly and firmly rooted in precisely the world and society in which we're currently living, and especially when it carefully demonstrates to use precisely the means by which it is examining that world, I don't think it also needs to triple-underline everything that might conceivably be what it sees as the relevant constituent parts of that world. If anything, watching the play will just remind audience members of their own experiences in precisely the same world as that in which the character lives. So it was in Mess, so it is here. Perhaps even more resonantly, since this was a piece about the unspoken, silent expectations that men kind of carry about with them unacknowledged. And one of those is to do with strength.

By this token, we could infer from Mess that there is a concomitant feminine ideal that is to do with smallness and slenderness and, by implication, weakness. (Actually Mess goes a long way toward demonstrating that actually Jospehine's anorexia is a lot more to do with mental toughness and control than it is toward body-image, per se; but it is still interesting that she uses that mental discipline to pursue a path toward, well, less of Josephine rather than Roland's path to an increased muscular presence). Neither show says as much, nor explicitly “blames society”. They don't need to. It's just there, hanging over everything. In the case of Roland P. we are allowed to see that it is also his insular, casually misogynist, emotionally stunted worldview that has led him to his conclusions.

He is a colossally unsympathetic character, and yet he's still wounded enough a creature for us to feel sorry for him and wish that something would go right for him, rather than to feel like this is an exercise in executing a straw target. Robertson turns in an excellent performance; vein-popping, straining and sweating under queasy yellowy-green lights; elsewhere demonstrating a real aptitude for both comic timing and catching the inflections of modern urban vocal patterns across a wide range of characters.

That said, the play is interestingly caustic, perhaps even judgemental in its handling of its central character. Or at least, playing to a metropolitan, liberal-elite-type Fringe audience (my row in Monday's show alone contained Chris Thorpe, Chris Goode's producer Ric Watts and Simon Kane, for example), I didn't get the feeling that the piece was dangerously dividing opinions. It's a strong and easily signed-up-to disparagement of the idea that extreme body-building is in any way a good or desirable thing.

The attendant literature that has built up around Mess makes an interesting and perhaps instructive comparison. I don't suppose, for example, that many male critics are going to that only women are really going to enjoy Strong Arm because they don't get how Finlay has somehow “ducked the issue”, or whatever. And I don't suppose anyone is going to say something like: “I'm glad it was something he's been through himself”. Or “I'd have been less comfortable if he didn't have first hand experience of it”. Apart from anything else, because, unless he's done some serious de-conditioning since, it's reasonably apparent from the conclusion, which sees Robertson posing in the briefest of briefs, that he's not spent significantly more time in the gym than anyone else in the room.

As writing, and as a narrative, it reminded me more than anything of that other chronicler of the Crisis of Masculinity™ Chuck Palahniuk. There's the same itchy obsessiveness, the same attention to number-crunching detail and a similar draw toward gross-out moments. Oddly, it also finds many parallels in the section of Sports Play in which Jelinek gives a voice to the tragic figure of Andreas Münzer. (OK, I'm not just unremittingly highbrow, it also reminded me of that episode of South Park where Cartman takes a load of weight-gain drink).

However, while the piece is essentially comic and caustic, it does also open a space to think about the point we've got to in the world where young men can quite plausibly feel that their value lies primarily in their bodies, and in their ability to be strong.

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