Played in the round as part of Paines Plough’s Earlier / Later Edinburgh season, Manwatching is a work in progress, in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre. Written by a woman who chooses to stay anonymous, to avoid being labelled by the open discussion of sex in the piece, a series of high profile male comedians have been chosen to read the script cold in front of an audience.
At 10.00 on Friday 14th August, Marcus Brigstocke walked into the centre of the round with a take-away cup of tea, and was handed the script. He immediately sank into the monologue, with a performance that was unstilted, measured and well peppered with comedic reactions. Witnessing Marcus reading this frank and open exploration of female attraction, and watching his face humorously sadden as his own attributes are put under scrutiny, pulls some laughter from the audience but at its heart, the comedy of the piece doesn’t really land, and gender incongruity between the female words and male voice fails to have any serious impact.
The playwright primarily focuses on heterosexual relationships, attraction and personal stories, with female masturbation, ageing and sexual desire considered as the most controversial topics she discusses. Unfortunately, they aren’t really unusual topics of conversation in current popular culture, and one has the feeling that the anonymous writer has overestimated the shock value their discussion has, and therefore the comedic potential of the work.
The cold-reading of the script places a larger focus on the words than any physicality of the performer, and as a result certainly engineers more impact on the female / male conflict of words and voice. Marcus’ performance was very sensitive to the need to protect the integrity of the words themselves, and consequently there were times when hearing recounts of early sexual explorations coming out of his mouth would produce some easy laughter. However the use of a male performer did not necessarily have any long lasting reciprocal impact on the message of the text. Apart from a brief explanation that this technique was chosen to open up a discussion on how we privilege the male voice (that we are more likely to accept something with authority if we hear it in a male voice), the rest of the piece failed to take advantage of the chance to reflect this more widely.
This was a good opportunity to explore more than the differences between female and male sexual desire, as well as habits about speaking openly about masturbation and attraction; potentially the narrative could have progressed to cover the more uncomfortable topic of power relations between the sexes, which would have had a more visceral and immediate impact through the conflict between the two voices of the piece. I would have liked to see the male performer following a journey of his own as he read out these female words, learning the subtleties of male privilege along with the audience, and creating an opportunity to examine the gender differences that remain in today’s society through the comparison of the male / female experience.
As its current incarnation, this piece seems to be suffering from a slight identity crisis; whether it is comedic or political, I hope that further development can bring out either (or both) of these themes in the text. It is still an upstanding and worthwhile exploration of female sexuality, with a sensitive and wide ranging script, and it will be extremely interesting to see how this piece progresses after its Edinburgh run.
10.00, 22.30, Roundabout@Summerhall
10th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 21st August 2015
Cast And Crew
Writer: Anonymous Female
Performer: Marcus Brigstocke, Nish Kumar, James Acaster, Nick Helm
Direction and Dramaturgy: Lucy Morrison
Further Dramaturgy: Ryan Nobel, Lisa Heledd Jones, Christopher Brett Bailey