This one’s arriving a little late, but I’ve been super busy of late with this great new hobby. It involves me sitting naked in one corner of my darkened, empty house and trying to throw a hammer into a bucket I’ve placed in the opposite corner of the room. If I get it in I do a little victory cheer and then go and retrieve the hammer, and if I don’t then I sit in silence for a while pondering my existence. Then go and retrieve the hammer. As you can tell, this doesn’t leave a lot of time for theatre reviews.
I don’t feel too bad about leaving Men so long because the season’s sold out. After all of the tickets went out the door the creators put on another matinee this Sunday. That sold out too.
It’s always quite a feat to sell out an independent production, I reckon, and I’m not exactly sure how Men did it. It might be due in part to the Star Power Factor – Samuel Johnson’s still a familiar face and Brendan Cowell is becoming more recognisable to the average punter. I don’t know that there are that many people out there who aren’t theatregoers but will jump out of the couch when they see one of these names attached to a play, though.
There’s also a more subtle aspect to the play’s vague aura of celebrity, and it’s to do with the fact that to build up a consistent and enduring acting profile in Australia requires that you work with a lot of people. There are plenty of youngish actors working in TV at the moment and whenever they appear in a theatrical piece the opening night is full of familiar faces from the Tube. This isn’t a surprising observation in itself, since most openings are populated by friends and family. But the TV crowd seem either a pretty loyal bunch or else people who just have more friends. Maybe it’s only because average theatrical experiences have alienated most of the buddies I could once call upon to accompany me to a show, but I think TV types probably find it easier to find a date to the theatre. Then again, maybe it’s due to the hammer-and-bucket thing. Nah. I googled it and no medically recognised journals offer any suggestions there so it’s probably nothing.
Men might have attracted such interest on the back of the play’s strong reputation alone. It was Brendan Cowell’s first piece of writing and I remember hearing quite a bit about it in the few years after its Sydney premiere back in the early noughties. I’m not sure why it garnered so much attention then. It’s definitely a first play, with some glaring flaws that a more seasoned playwright would have picked up on by the second or third draft. The final reveal is one of those ‘twists’ that used to characterise Tropfest films, in which everything that’s gone before turns out to be at the service of a really basic joke that wouldn’t be out of place in a uni revue. It’s a pity, since so much of what goes before in Men is really intriguing. But it’s a disservice to the play to reduce it to its ending, so I’ll resist that.
The play centres on three guys in a plastic-lined room waiting for some dramatic moment – a disembodied female voice counts down the minutes to their judgement or revelation, while they occupy themselves with the most ugly of distractions. Birthday boy Guy starts the night by inserting a bunch of drugs in either end of his digestive system; self-obsessed Jules regales him with tales of the sadomasochistic sex life he shares with his wife, Guy’s ex-girlfriend; and Bob seems to think of himself as a walking penis with a superhuman ability to attract women. These boys are deeply unbalanced but also obvious representations of archetypes of masculinity: grotesque caricatures of Aussie blokedom. They’re all wearing Ed Hardy, if that helps paint the picture.
Maybe the thing that’s enabled Men’s success is here: just as Freud’s most notorious quote (“what do women want?”) still haunts popular culture, so does the constant fascination for seeing men play out primal fantasies of maleness. On one level Men is a critique of misogyny, violence and self-destructive excess, while on another it’s a straightforward depiction of it. The twist, as I’ve said, reduces the many possibilities hinted at throughout the narrative (are they facets of the same personality? Are they in some kind of spiritual purgatory? Are they our own projections of male standards?) to a punchline.
The production here has much to commend it. Samuel Johnson is a very watchable live actor, with the world-weary, battle-scarred density of a younger Robert Menzies. Jay Bowen and Justin Rosniak also give terrifically energetic performances. When the piece falters it almost always does so modestly, and while Men still wears its adolescence ten years after writing, there’s enough to this production, if not its source, worth nurturing.
Ends Sunday at fortyfivedownstairs.