Saturday, August 13, 2016

F*cking Men (Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Fringe)

Joe DiPietro's F*cking Men is basically a sexually transmitted disease in theatrical form. Based upon Arthur Schnitzler's controversial 1897 play Le Ronde, it shows a cavalcade of ten gay male characters getting off with one another in turn, with one partner leading us to the next vignette, and so on. It's an x-rated game of Pass the Parcel.

Whereas Schnitzler's original was purely heterosexual (the whore and the soldier, the soldier and the parlour maid, the parlour maid and the gentleman etc), the idea of a relay race of sexual encounters lends itself much more easily to the gay scene in the 21st century, because that's how it broadly works. There is generally more promiscuity on the gay scene, with men picking up partners for one night stands as easily as swiping right or left on an app, or provocatively rearranging a towel in the sauna.

The original 2015 production of F*cking Men at the King's Head Theatre in London featured a larger cast of performers than this Edinburgh transfer, which sees three actors take on multiple roles throughout the 60 minutes. The play only tells tales where there are two to tango, so having three actors just about copes with the flow, but it's interesting to see how easily the performers flip from one character to their next, and how director Mark Barford has adapted original helmsman Geoffrey Hyland's dynamics.

We begin with the soldier on leave who approaches the hustler for a blow job, but who predictably "isn't gay" and just wants to try it the once. The fact the soldier obviously is gay, and simply refuses to accept that, becomes clear as, by the end of the play, the baton comes full circle and we learn that soldiers and hustlers can fall in love.

Between A and Z there are a variety of gay stereotype touchstones - the playwright, the closeted film actor, the chat show host, the porn star, the open relationship... Nothing particularly new is said about any of these people, although it may have been more enlightening to the heterosexual audience than the gay one. I was sitting behind a row of straight girls who found the male nudity almost overwhelmingly amusing and titillating, with gasps and "oh my gods" coming thick and fast as the men on stage strutted their stuff in changing rooms and broom cupboards. The promiscuity of the gay world might seem shocking to some heterosexual audiences, but the wide-eyed surprise with which some were drinking in the nude scenes is a reminder that it's actually pretty normal for gay men to be familiar with the naked male form (other than their own of course!). For straight men and women, where monogamy is more valued, seeing strangers in the nuddy is something of a novelty.

The three actors cope well with the ever-spinning roster of characters, although Richard de Lisle shows the greatest breadth by playing everything from the taciturn predator to an effete arty queen to a grief-stricken older man. His chat show host Donald is the most nuanced of the characters, a man who has spent his life in the closet because he believes there are greater advantages to staying in there. He is also deeply affected by the death of his gay lover two years earlier, and has philanthropic tendencies toward the young hooker he employs for the night.

Haydn Whiteside brings chinks of vulnerability to the cocky university student as well as the struggling hustler, while Harper James successfully manages to portray a masculine soldier (who noticeably softens with time) and a fluffy school teacher trapped in an open relationship he doesn't believe in. All three actors use both their voices and their costumes to discern each character, but do not use body language as much as they might.

Yes, there are stereotypes (although not the screaming queen you might expect to be plucked from the Louie Spence Stable of Gay Cliche) but the reason stereotypes are such is because they're often broadly true. These people do exist on the gay scene (and there is a definite distinction to be made between scene and community here) and sexual promiscuity does work like this. The very real dangers of unprotected sex with multiple partners is an issue, and yes, people do still spend all their time in the closet expecting casual turns to follow them in for the night.

F*cking Men is a necessary modernisation of the fiercely heterosexual source material, and although it's saying nothing new or groundbreaking beyond being the gender-swap cover version that it is, it speaks a lot of unavoidable truths about how gay men conduct themselves and how ships that pass (and have sex) in the night can often have more of an impact than they might want or like.

The stats
Writer: Jo DiPietro
Director: Mark Barford
Cast: Richard de Lisle, Harper James, Haydn Whiteside (various roles)
Performed at Assembly George Square Studios 2, Edinburgh, August 4th to 29th, 2016. Performance reviewed: August 12th 2016

King's Head Theatre website (retrieved Aug 12 2016)
F*cking Men on Assembly Festival website (retrieved Aug 13 2016)

1 comment:

Did you see the show too? I'd love to hear your feedback!