Arts Review: Penetrator


Dir. Julia Midtgard, The Old Hairdressers, 1st-2nd June

If in-yer-face theatre is ‘the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message’, then Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator performed by Fear No Colours Theatre leaves the audience and their neck scruffs well and truly shook. However, as for the translation of a message, the play explores the hypermasculinity and aggressive sexuality masking subdued desire which penetrates the lives of the play’s three characters: Max, Alan, and Tadge. Yet despite this expedition into masculinity, the writing at times collapses into what feels like one elongated, homophobic rape joke.

With an appropriate setting of an unkempt Glaswegian flat, replete with imminently unfortunate teddies, the play begins with a reminder of its lewd title as a distorted, perverse voice-over feeds the audience an exerpt from the porn magazine over which Max unapologetically masturbates. As Alan enters, the two unemployed men (as dishevelled as their surroundings) argue, and soon Max claims that he “knows men” and professes the malevolence of women, as Alan is begrudgingly enlightened on how “it’s worse for men”. This inappropriate but admissible boys-will-be-boys deviancy sets an uncomfortable tone, but does enjoy a comedic relief from the physicality of Alan (Raymond Wilson) in his responses to Max’s ludicrousness.

Enter: malaise… and Tadge. Cold and calculating, Tadge creates an uneasy hostility between the characters which extends to the audience. Escaped from the army, Tadge claims he was continuously assaulted in the ‘black room’ by ‘the penetrators’. From here the piece degenerates from crude to almost unbearable, with both Alan and his teddy being held at knife point. The dialogue then seems to focus on rape and assault from the army as well as a shaky telling of Tadge & Max’s past.

Much of the discomfort I felt in the atmosphere stemmed, for me, from laughter originating in the audience at what I truly felt was inappropriate and completely exempt of humour, such as the abovementioned rape motif and the explicit homophobia. Whether this laughter was intended or not may decide the pertinence of the play.

However, despite my questioning of the director’s choice of play, the execution certainly exceeded expectation. Each actor delivered an outstanding performance while the collaboration of individuality exposed the vulgarity of the piece. The use of venue was apt, transporting its student audience back to their disorderly flats. Simultaneously the use of music and sound kept the audience apprehensive, as it spanned from joyful dance tunes to The Stone Roses to a disconcerting white noise which backgrounds Tadge’s trauma. The ending sees Tadge and a softly sobbing Max eating starbursts. Having had their pedestals of masculinity snatched from below them, the young men are reduced to their vulnerable, youthful selves, delicately getting lost in the loud music, perhaps attempting to drown out their despondency, just as the audience must now do.

[Ellen Magee – @mondaymagee]

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