Fun with a Blow-up Doll
REVIEW ... Newcastle Playhouse
by Rupert Christiansen
The Observer Review | Sunday Sep 24 1995
Leaving the Newcastle Playhouse on a bleak Saturday night, you see something of what Enter Achilles, DV8's new show, is on about. Fortunately, United had just beaten Manchester City 3-1, so the mood on the streets wasn't absolutely murderous, but there they were these young men, in force, looking and behaving much as DV8 had just been impersonating them — matily bonded, emptily uproarious, nervously combative and pissed as newts. Which reinforces one's feeling that Enter Achilles isn't just an enthralling and moving piece of theatre; it's also a cruelly accurate essay in social anthopology.
It lasts a lean and taut 75 minutes and has been devised and developed by DV8's founder Lloyd Newson in collaboration with a company of eight male performers, all of them superlatively good (Newson doesn't appear himself; he's recovering from a bad injury to his Achilles tendon: hence the title). DV8 don't use the word 'dance' much: Newson's interest as a choreographer — or whatever the appropriate job description might be — lies more in exploiting ordinary body language and delving into the psychology of movement. As in all the company's projects (Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, Strange Fish and MSM notable among them), there are some identifiably danced episodes here, mostly of an up-against-the-wall and in-your-face nature; but you'd be wrong to judge it in terms of any abstract aesthetic criterion.
Explaining its narrative course is tricky — there are so many twists and turns and foreclosures. A sad man in bed makes love to an inflatable sex doll. He is tender and caressing of it, to the point of switching off his answer machine when a call comes through from a girlfriend asking him out for a date — he's happier with a dummy. Cut to a strange Toytown pub interior, with tiny doors and low walls (a brilliant design by Ian MacNeil, of An Inspector Calls fame). Here the guys gather to splurge the evening away. They preen and strut and grab at their crotches, as they slosh back the pints and tell lewd jokes. A series of abrupt pas de deux follow, thick with homoerotic overtones which are never fully articulated.
Enter Achilles — or at least I presume that's who he is. Our hero is a wary outsider (played by someone rejoicing in the magnificent name of Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola) who is playing some strange private game of his own. He is clearly a bit smarter than the rest of the gang. In the course of one bout of tribal shenanigans, he starts turning like a dervish, shedding his shirt and trousers. His underwear reveals him as Superman, who henceforward plays a Cupid or Puck-like role in the proceedings, poking his nose into other people's private fantasies and creating extra havoc when he starts camping it up to the disco tune of 'Staying Alive'.
The climax comes when the inflatable doll is brought into the pub and tossed around like a balloon, much to the chagrin of the sad man of the opening section. Things get nastier, until the doll is brutally sodomised with a beer bottle and six of the lads start to sing 'I vow to thee my country' ('the love than never falters' and so on), before sinking into giggles. The sad man is left to mourn his beloved doll, now deflated, as Superman sings a threnody from on high, like deity in a baroque opera.
The basic point may be obvious, and scarcely original — working class males in this country can't relate well, to each other or to women — and you could argue that the exclusive focus on one specific emotional syndrome is unduly negative: after all, this is also the age of the New Man and touchy-feely bonding weekends with Robert Bly. But Newson is no fool, nor a caricaturist. Each of the men is drawn in some depth, each is granted his particular personality and vulnerability. Nor is Enter Achilles at all earnest. The simplicity of the theme is continually coloured and leavened by wackily surreal comedy and by outbursts of sheer physical exuberance, as when one character suddenly engages the Superman figure in a brilliant step-dancing contest.
In Newcastle, a packed house roared its collective head off with both laughter and applause. At a time when so much contemporary dance in Britain seems to have hit a dead end, it's heartening to find DV8 blazing a fresh, dangerous trail and taking a large, enthusiastic audience with it.