Thursday 2 April 2015

Better Brutality Than Boredom – Antwerp Mansion, Rusholme

[seen 01/04/15]

[Same disclaimer about wide-eyed newness as yesterday, but...]

Ok. This is my second brush with Manchester Fringe theatre, and Christ, it’s turning out to be pretty exciting. As yesterday, the venue isn’t even slightly set up as a theatre (much less so even than yesterday’s, in fact), and as yesterday, this was the last night of a pretty short run (March 29th – 1st April). Antwerp Mansion appears to be a squat primarily aimed at hosting dance parties for young people (I’m not even going to try to pretend I understand). It’s both impressive in scale and vitually rotting in terms of décor. Tonight’s performance was measured by a steady drip from the ceiling onto an improvised metal plate below it (presumably to stop the drip beating its way through the floorboards). In short, it’s a damn sight cooler than anywhere you ever see theatre in London. Hidden in a backstreet off “Curry Mile”, just east of Moss Side, it also has an air of illegality and grimy glamour that public subsidy just can’t buy.

And it turns out to be the perfect venue for Rampant Theatre’s Better Brutality Than Boredom. Three men wake up, piled across one another in what we presume is a room much like the one we’re in – minus the windows. The men are locked in, and have no memory of how they got there. One’s dressed in jeans and a smart-casual shirt, one in a tracksuit, and one in suit trousers, shirt and tie. They wake up, shout at each other, establish that they’re locked in, and very quickly kick off at each other. Then, one by one, they are frozen. One suddenly discovers he cannot move at all. Then the next. etc. The men are understandably alarmed. Next, involuntarily, one throws a punch at another. This pattern also repeats across the three captives. It’s fairly clear to us, the audience, and to the men too, from even the faintest passing familiarity that they’ve been kidnapped by some unseen force which now has the ability to control their bodies. Closer examination by the men discovers that they have some sort of implants buried under their flesh at the base of their necks. Attempts to dig one of these devices out with a nail come to nothing.

[I’ve only just discovered, looking at the (admirably old-school, 2-sided, photocopied, A4) programme this morning, that the piece didn’t have “a writer” at all. It’s got a director (Karl Barnsley), a fight director (Kaitlin Howard), and a producer (David Bamford), and the amusing credit that “Mark Reid might have had something to do with this originally”. But that’s it, apart from the five performers. And, refreshingly, there’s no long mission statement about how the company makes work, or their core beliefs. There’s just the title of the play, cast and crew biogs, and two ads: one for their next show (The Gambit, short tour both sides of the Pennines in July ahead of Edinburgh run) and one calling for submissions to a festival that the company is running (3rd – 6th November).]

And, well, so far so Beckett, right? If Beckett had been more in the business of writing the set-ups for something like the Saw films or perhaps some kind of existential Reservoir Dogs. It has some of that mysterious nowhere-world of Beckett’s longer plays, and the same hints at an apparently arbitrarily cruel universe we see in the Acts Without Words. At the same time, the choices of costume and the way the three men position themselves in relation to one another, are suggestive of some sort of allegory of the class system. That famous That Was The Week That Was sketch as Fight Club. But, even though only about twenty minutes in, the set-up has started to feel limited: perhaps because the men started in on the fighting so quickly, almost inexplicably so; perhaps because we know the men have so little agency, and so their dilemma – externally controlled – seems dramatically limited. Yes, as a picture of modern Britain/British manhood, it’s every bit as grim, miserable and hopeless as the reality, but, crumbs, you think, can I really watch an allegory for an hour? Godot with fist-fighting instead of cod-philosophy.

[next couple of paragraphs will be a bit spoilery, but the run’s over and the programme gives no indication of a return, so...]

Then the men’s captors turn up. Because the programmes are handed out upon leaving (smart), there’s no hint that this might happen, so just this simple introduction of two new characters seems like a real dramatic coup, and like the whole potential of the piece has just expanded hugely. For one thing, one of the two newcomers is a woman, for another, they are holding the remote controls that control the men. They have the ability to double the men up in agony at the touch of a button, or to move them around and make them hit each other. It’s a lot more interesting now we can see them wanting to do it.

For all this newness, the dramatic action continues its low-key relentless sadism. I should say at this point, that if there’s one thing I really can’t watch, it’s relentless violence, so I actually watched quite a lot of this play looking slightly to the left or right of where the action was. As it happens, nothing *too* horrible happens, there’s no stage blood used, it doesn’t have any special effects. But the horror of the situation is enough. Or the bit where the boy with the remote control – the newcomers are young, perhaps only meant to be teenagers (obvs the actors are recent graduate age) – makes one of the men repeatedly stab himself with a nail. Elsewhere there’s sexual humiliation, forcing the men to perform grudging nods to sex acts (no pants come off, but you get the idea). If anyone in the audience managed not to think of the torture by British and American forces in Iraq, then hats off to them for their breathtaking naïveté. (Hats off too to the one bloke in the audience who managed to find something to chuckle at, pretty much throughout. He looked like a PE Teacher who had recently signed a number of pro-Clarkson petitions. You get the idea.) And, for all I might not like watching this sort of thing, and might have wished for a bit more sparky dialogue, or to be comfortingly led by the nose to the precise metaphorical significance as one usually is in British theatre, there was something undeniably compelling and brilliant about just this ongoing, low-level nastiness. Something somehow more true precisely because it wasn’t *writerly* and didn’t tell us why it was doing what it was doing.

In the end, the three men are piled back on top of each other, and left by their captors, and we get the sense that maybe this is what happens every day. There’s no explanation of what possible dystopia allows for this. There are hints in the dialogue of the captors, but everything is left refreshingly unclear. They only talk in the way that two people who both know the score already do, rather than dropping audience friendly expository sentences. Which again feels like a master-stroke.

If I’d seen it, I might find myself comparing Better Brutality... (and I’d cut the title to just that. I reckon the the “...Than Boredom” bit is the most leading information in the entire piece, suggesting as it does a critique of the Kidz of Today all getting a bit violence happy because of smart phones and video games – the men are even controlled by iPhone-looking devices) to Mike Bartlett’s recent Game at the Almeida (brilliantly critiqued by Dan Rebellato under that link). But, what’s great about Better Brutality... is that it doesn’t milk that “implicating the audience” trope. Yes, we’re there, in the same room, watching this very violent play, but it doesn’t insult our intelligence by asking if we’d be better people if we somehow made a stand against the pretending. Of course, there’s a disturbing parallel between watching violence and the behaviour of the men’s captors on stage. Except that clearly this is a play that has some moral centre. As in Sarah Kane, its violence is allegorical not pornographic. And, unless you’re an idiot PE Teacher, then there’s nothing fun about watching it.

So, yes, despite being a pretty tough watch (in a freezing room, accessible only through sheets of rain on a bloody cold night), this was raw, original, intelligent, disturbing theatre.

This is Antwerp Mansion, btw:


Performance space


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