Pint-sized Male Egos
REVIEW ... Newcastle Playhouse
by David Dougill
The Sunday Times | Sunday Sep 24 1995
Lloyd Newson's latest work is a dark exploration of the macho image.
Lloyd Newson of DV8 Physical Theatre company is a choreographer-director whose work bridges dance and drama and it's always immensely theatrical, often controversial. It's also always "about" something. Newson's themes over the nearly 10 years of his troupe's existence have mainly been aspects of gay life. His last work MSM, set in a men's public convenience, explored, courageously if problematically, the world of "cottaging". But his new piece, Enter Achilles — which had its British première last weekend at the Newcastle Playhouse and is on tour to the end of next month — switches ground to the setting of a pub — a "straight" one — to ask: "What does it mean to be a man?" That is, the kind of man who, from Newson's viewpoint, represses "unmanly" instincts behind a macho image, so that violence covers up for vulnerability. Even Achilles had his heel, which I imagine is one reason for the work's catchy title.
It begins with several of the cast up high, as if suspended mid-air (magical lighting by Jack Thompson), arm-pumping and taking their shirts off to the sound of a football crowd. Then, down below, boxer-shorted Ross Hounslow sits upright in bed, suddenly woken from a dream, and next to him up pops an inflated sex doll. Crude? No. The doll is so cleverly manipulated that she appears to be alive, caressing him and kicking her legs in ecstasy. It's a remarkable effect, both funny and moving.
Now cut to the pub, with Ian MacNeil's clever set that adapts to interior and exterior. "No dancing allowed" reads a sign outside. Inside, there's football on the telly and pop music on tape as the eight seasoned drinkers preen in a mirror, juggle with their beer glasses, smoke, strut, scrap and harangue us with boorish jokes. We, the audience, become the women — whom they're out to impress, or insult, or pick up.
Newson's work has the dancers tumbling, writhing, rolling in acrobatic choreography while they balance their pints without spilling them. Back-slapping, bottom-groping matiness is a veneer: Newson builds the fun on a knife-edge of tension. Fights break out at the least provocation, and impish Liam Steel is the one who averts nasty moments, until he also becomes a victim. When the impressively tall Jordi Cortes Molina, after a rubbery-legged drunken solo, slumps repeatedly down a wall, Jeremy James nervously supports him, quiveringly patting his face, keeping an eye out in case any of the other bravos should spot this manifestation of male tenderness. Here, we can all take Newson's point.
The wonderfully named Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola strips off his pub clothes to reveal a Superman costume. This leads to several witty gags, and then to an astonishing aerobatic act up a rope, when he entices Steel to join him — the two of them knotted high above the stage in a daredevil aerial ballet. This was so gripping a physical feat that it was only after the show that I got round to wondering whether Newson intended this as a metaphor for a fantasy relationship.
Enter Achilles mixes humour with menace, exuberance with violence, and a view of sex that falls somewhere within that span. Towards the end, the sex doll returns, to be batted around like a football, obscenely abused and finally slashed with a broken bottle. This is horrifying, for us as well as for the desperately wailing Hounslow (her lover), because this was the one relationship (private, made public) that mattered in the bleak world Newson is depicting. But he leaves us with a coup de théâtre, almost an apotheosis, when the floor of the set heaves upwards to vertical, scattering the pub's detritus, with Hounslow scrabbling to safety on the top of it, and a new doll, inside a lighted booth, yearningly lifting her arms up to him. Make of that what you will.