Truly, Badly, But Terribly Manly
REVIEW ... Arnolfini, Bristol
by Judith Mackrell
The Guardian | Friday Sep 22 1995
Lloyd Newson's new work for DV8 portrays men as moronic monsters. But why has he got such a low opinion of his sex? Judith Mackrell went to ask him.
Lloyd Newson's latest piece Enter Achilles is about men behaving badly. That's not just badly as in getting very pissed and arseing around. It's badly as in beating up any male who's remotely effeminate; badly as in slashing the breasts of a plastic doll and badly as in repressing emotion.
Eight dancers, confined in a claustrophobic pub interior, share a 75-minute drinking session that becomes more angry, defensive and explosive by the pint. The group's body language is brilliantly and often hilariously observed. Several of the men are raw with tension, their chins thrusting like turkey-cocks, their legs as stiff as a group of drilling squaddies. They take up too much air space, they jab their fingers to ram a point home.
Periodically their beer turns them into puppies so that they sprawl into rugby scrums, beam blearily, sing sentimental songs and snicker. But it also turns them nasty. One man at least is covertly gay but he tries to be one of the lads. The first time they turn againast him he fulfils every boy's dream by whirling around and trouncing his attackers, his clothes falling off to reveal his Superman suit. But the next time is for real, with ugly fighting and even uglier mimed rape.
The same violence is unleashed against a plastic doll which gets beaten up in brutal pantomime sex and mutilated with a broken bottle. The hatred of women, of bodies, of physical affection is wound to a terrifying pitch. These, says the show, are the feelings and fantasies men store up to take home after a night at the pub.
As we watch these scenes, though, it's not actually the anger and repression that most shocks — we know it all too well. What's really startling is the fact that a group of men could have produced such an unloving and unforgiving portrait of themselves.
Lloyd Newson has made a brilliant career out of anatomising the politics of sex — from male alienation to female masochism — and by instinct and circumstance he's a polemicist. Before becoming a dancer he studied for a degree in psychology, which fuelled his dissatisfaction with the gap between dance and the real world. As a gay man he was frustrated by the heterosexual images of sex that dominated his art. His own work with DV8 has been that of an outsider, pushing to make his experiences visible and prodding the establishemnt into a little discomfort.
His new work Enter Achilles, however, originated from Newson's own feelings of discomfort with his sex. He was working in Glasgow with some male dancers who happened to be straight and, spending time with them, he found himself in an unfamiliar "hard man" culture of pubs, pints and anti-gay attitudes. He watched himself, fascinated, as he tried to fit in. "Men have been criticised for oppressing women," he says, "but we also have to realise how much we oppress ourselves".
Newson observed how most men are afraid to dress as they want ("we all go round in camouflage"), how they don't drink what they want ("guys will order beer even if they don't really like it"), how they don't express their emotions ("we're only meant to show anger or humour"). How they are in denial — "so much of masculinity is defined by negatives".
To explore these atitudes he developed a broad scenario which he then spent weeks improvising with his eight dancers. The latter contributed many of the final words and actions and some of the show's most worrying moments, Newson insists, are theirs — the violence with the doll, the filthiest jokes. This is important, because Newson feels that what he learnt about his dancers — their aggressive defences and their unwillingness to share their secrets — bore out the rest of his research and proved that the viciousness and inhibition portrayed in Enter Achilles "represent the vast majority of heterosexual men".
He can cite countless episodes to support this, of strangers baiting gay men in the street and of physical intimidation of outsiders. He can talk about how his cast of largely straight dancers turned out to be much more buttoned up than any comparable group of gay men he's worked with (although he's anxious to stress that gay men recognise aspects of themselves in the show).
But however true the anecdotes are and however vivid the work's imagery, Enter Achilles deliberately presents only the damning evidence against men. The extreme discomfort I and many other women felt with Newson's grim portrayal of victimised women in his earlier work (is that really how he saw us?) I now find myself feeling on behalf of men (are they really so vile?).
Certainly I'd expected Enter Achilles to make me laugh and to make me angry, but I'd also expected a work that claims to ask "fundamental questions of what constitutes masculinity" to take me into some hidden areas of the male psyche (what do guys do when women aren't there?); I'd hoped to be surprised and what I got instead was a series of stereotypes, expertly and wittily manipulated, but routinely familiar all the same.
Apart from a few snatched moments of camaraderie, a guilty bit of sensitivity, and of course the token vulnerable gay man, there was no glimpse of the way individuals operate within the social mould, of the tension between men's eccentricities and decencies and their horrible gang behaviour. It was funny and deadly but it was too bad to be true.
Newson defends himself by back-peddling a little. "Well of course it's not meant to be all men... it's fantastical, a parody... There is always a problem with representation in dance. If you watch a play like Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen you just think this is a bunch of men in a kitchen, you're not thinking this is every man." The difficulty is partly that "people aren't used to seeing characterisation through movement" but it's also that choreography can have a generalising effect on material.
Newson discovered this when making his last work, MSM, a piece about cottaging in which he'd intended to use movement as well as text. Because he found that the words (which he'd gathered from extensive interviews) carried the truth of the piece so precisely, he couldn't use dance at all — "the movement didn't fit, it was too abstracting".
Conversely, although there is some text in Enter Achilles, it's the movement that carries the bulk of the characterisation and makes the larger statements. This may work against precise social detail and it may make us think in generalisations but actually some of the show's most individualising moments turn out to be the purest passages of dance — a man performing a gracefully meditative solo with a beer glass, a duet that's half brawling, half affectionate play. It's through these that we get rare inside glimpses of the men and it might be that this particular group of dancers found it easier to tell their secrets through movements rather than through words.
But even if Enter Achilles feels as if it was made to prove a point and even if its aims seemed skewed, it does manage to splatter a lot of tartgets en route. The humour and the horror of it will touch nerves, cause arguments and revist the debate about nineties man. It may not be a credible human document but it does effectively and entertainingly what all polemic should do — which is divide its audience into angry support or dissent.