Contact Young Company with Hetain Patel.
30 August 2018.
Earlier this year Contact Young Company shone a spotlight on the ongoing struggle for women’s rights with She Bangs The Drums. This time they’ve got their mechanic’s overalls on and they’re having a good poke around under the bonnet of manhood.
After being accompanied to a ‘secret’ location in central Salford, we are invited to explore the outdoor space. Through wire fencing we can see piles of tyres, shelves packed with lengths of timber, plastic garden chairs and household junk. We’re surrounded by the contents of men’s traditional spaces – garages, sheds, yards. Men’s words have been collected, neatly laminated, sealed in time and attached to the fencing. It’s as if we’re at a museum exhibit, an installation – an anthropological display of some signifiers of maleness.
One handwritten confession reads, “I’ve never seen my Dad cry before. I used to be proud of him for this, now I’m scared to think what he deals with on the inside, that I don’t even know about“.
A trio of cars are parked awkwardly – their doors open, littered with fast food leftovers, music blaring from them and recorded voices drifting. Have they been abandoned, are they waiting to be repaired and where are the drivers and their passengers?
Without warning, a metal shutter clatters into action as it lifts curtain-like to reveal the performers. Dressed for manual labour in blue overalls they are moving in formation, making noise and looking fearsome. As an audience we are not welcomed in, we are confronted by the performance, it feels very much like we are in their space. It’s deliberately intimidating and in your face, and people enter reluctantly,
The 14 performers are constantly on the move and heading forwards with purpose. From crouched positions, bent forward, they gradually straighten and rise upwards in a vivid breathless evocation of the evolution of man. It’s difficult at times to catch every detail, there is so much personality and individuality within the sequences of movement but that all becomes subsumed within an increasingly homogenous identity – an aggressive, clamorous, showy tribalism.
The performance space itself, like the entrance yard we explored earlier, is a place where men are at work – shelves, tools, hazard cones and warning signs. Here though, these men are working on themselves, and the show explores different aspects of masculinity in a series of scenes and sketches. So men find themselves pulled out for examination on a pallet truck, and piles of heartfelt paper testimonies about being a man are tipped on to the floor from a metal wheelbarrow.
Stories are the show’s building blocks, and the use of real-life experiences from the cast and people they have interviewed, brings a powerful immediacy to many of the spoken sequences.
Body language is strikingly used, with performers taking up space, standing their ground and moving with cocksure strides. There’s also some beautiful story-telling through movement – most especially as a young man’s battle to resist peer pressure and just be himself, sees him ‘swim’ against the combined force of his colleagues surging forward en masse.
The sound of Backstreet’s ‘No Diggity‘ recurs throughout the show. It’s lyrical assertion – “no diggity, no doubt” reinforces the suffocating nature of machismo. Absolutely. For sure. No room for ambiguity, fluidity or nuance. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’. A high-energy quiz show (Be A Man) serves to illustrate how there are too often unspoken rules for men, their behaviours policed by unrealistic expectations with no space for doubt.
“Are men allowed to cry?”. “No!”.
“Can men ask for help?”. “No!”.
Humour is used effectively to expose the pressures that men labour under. A young man is wheeled in for a merciless MOT that sees him set up to fail when judged against a range of strict criteria, from the size of his penis to the car he drives. Playing scenarios such as these for laughs may lighten the heavy mood but it also highlights the absurdity of the unattainable standards society imposes upon men and boys.
Topics come at us thick and fast – like banter, bravado and sexism. Relationships are touched on – with drinking, gambling and fast cars… and of course with the ‘opposite sex’. The way men relate to women is considered from various angles, and the fact that women make up half the company means they bring valuable alternative perspectives based on their experiences of men. One powerful selection of testimonies dwells on the damage that men too often do to women, with disturbing accounts of violence, harassment and abuse.
Oh Man is keen to stress that men are not all the same, and that there is more than one way to be a man. It seems fascinated by the idea of masculinity as a performance – something that is learned, rehearsed, hidden behind or flaunted – in search of applause, appreciation and acceptance.
No Diggity’s “Hey oh, hey oh, hey oh, hey oh” brings the show to a close just as it accompanied its opening moments. But what was a loud and cacophonous rendition has now become quieter, reflective and almost mournful. What started with a bang ends with a single breath.
Deliberately steering clear of neat conclusions, the production not only explores what it means to be a man today but asks its audience to consider how masculinity might evolve. Oh Man resists a full-stop, the show positions itself as the beginning of a journey – it’s an energising, meaningful and heartfelt provocation.
Images by theApeNinja.