Straight and Narrow-minded
by Keith Watson
The Observer Review | Sep 10 1995
From sexual paranoia to bar-room violence, DV8 Physical Theatre explore the terrors of testosterone.
Try to answer this question honestly: how many male friends do you have that you could confide in, that you feel comforatble sharing your fears and feelings with?
If you are female or gay, stop counting now — that question was not really for you. But if you're a straight man, keep going — there must be one.
Or maybe not. Sure, you've got your mates, but what do you talk to them about? Whether Tyson can still cut it in the ring, is Claudia foxier than Naomi? Maybe. But what about how much you care for your partner? And does everyone fail to get it up once in a while? No, no, that kind of talk is hardly worthy of a man.
Popular wisdom decrees you'd be much better off getting out of your head down the pub with the lads. That's if the local isn't full of posey dance types. Hang on, though, what if the dance lads turn out to be fully paid-up blokes, well able to sink their fair share and handle themselves in a scrap? Well then, you've stumbled into the booze-and-bruiser world of DV8 Physical Theatre's new work, Enter Achilles.
Fresh from a sell-out European tour which saw its evocation of British pub culture brew up a storm with serious drinking audiences in Austria and Germany, Enter Achilles is about to weave its intoxicated path through Britain. It's a safe bet that its slew of pop-culture references will strike a chord with an audience beyond the usual contemporary dance ghetto.
For this is dance-drama drawn from everyday lives, with reference points that are instantly recognisable. What a relief it is to see a modern dance piece where you don't spend the first 15 minutes wondering what the hell is going on. With scant apologies to the remaining New Men out there still trying to reshape the future of masculinity by learning how to hug and do their fair share of the ironing, Enter Achilles throws the spotlight on the world as it really is: where men touching each other is a slap on a back or a grab in the scrum, a world where any sign of weakness is brutally exploited.
In short, Enter Achilles explores the dicey business of what makes a man a man. The idea hit DV8's director Lloyd Newson when he was laid up in hospital with a serious Achilles injury. Hence the title.
"My women friends came, my gay friends came, but where were my straight male friends? Nowhere in sight. I had to wonder whether that friendship was just based on doing things like going to the pub, and they couldn't handle it when I turned out to be vulnerable."
There followed a period of research in straight pubs where Newson was struck by the high level of violence he encountered compared to the gay pubs he was used to. Underneath the bonhomie he detected a disturbing undercurrent of paranoia and insecurity that only found an outlet in violence.
"Men can start fights over somebody just moving their pint! The violence was like a volcano which could explode at any moment — it all seemed like massive denial brought on by the straightjacket of what's deemed to be masculine behaviour. How many men can dare to be outrageous? And what men won't allow themselves to do, they won't tolerate in others."
So there are lots of scraps in Enter Achilles, a piece full of the dynamic movement that has earned DV8 an international reputation as pioneers of physical theatre, a meeting between dance and drama which confuses those who like their arts clearly labelled. But there are laughs too, as Newson teases the lads in his eight-strong cast to let themselves go, to show that straight men can get a kick out of shimmying their hips too.
Followers of DV8 might be surprised to find them tackling a piece where straight sex, with all its hangups, plays a leading role. Since they bursty on to the scene in 1986 with My Sex, Our Dance, the group has been heavily identified with gay issues, making front-page news in 1988 with Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, a work inspired by serial killer Dennis Nilson.
But, as Enter Achilles shows, the straight male experience can be every bit as oppressive as its gay counterpart. Certainly Newson's attempts to recruit a cast of straight performers — vital, as he builds material from real-life experiences — turned out to be a bumpy ride.
"It's ended up as a five-three split, straight to gay, but what amazed me was how uncomfortable so many straight men are when it comes to opening up about themselves. You'd get comments like 'I don't want to sit around talking about my father, I just want to have a good time and get out of it'. I had to use all that stuff in the piece."
The tensions between the performers certainly add spice to the action on stage, which attacks the thorny issues of homophobia and sexual paranoia. It's unsettling, powerful stuff, in a league of its own when set against the pallid, abstract posing that too often passes for modern dance. You might kick against Newson's inflated vision of straight sexual inadequacy — a blow-up doll is the only female the men can relate to — but there are unsettling truths being exposed here, emotions welling to the surface like a slow-burning bruise.
"Women have liberated themselves by the way they dress, by what they wear — but so few men are moving the same way, they just feel threatened and try to reassert their masculinity with all this Iron John stuff. But being a 'man' isn't half so critical, half so important, as learning to be human."