Men – Brendan Cowell and the problems of a man’s man. (Theatre Review)
Old Fitz Theatre 30 June to 25 July
Men is by far the stand out production in the successful first year of the new management at The Old Fitz theatre. A play that made its debut treading the same boards fifteen years ago, time has been good to the text which has successfully nestled into its now retro late 90’s aesthetic. The backwards glance adds a level of profundity to Men, which comes across, not only as a wonderful night at the theatre, but also as a kind of snapshot of a psyche wrestling with expression at a young age. Brendan Cowell wrote Men when he was twenty-three, and in many ways the play reveals itself as an intimate venture into the mind of an intelligent young man trying to work out who he is while hyper aware of the dreary self consciousness of navel gazing. Men is no tedious bildungsroman, but neither is it a condescending assumption about who a man is at the crossroads of his life. In the 90’s we were all so worried about young men and how they were suffering under the throes of feminism, and what the future held for a world where men weren’t forced into the role of provider. It seemed giving women a voice was an act of retaliation. Instead it wakes us up to the mirror complexities men have always suffered under, and works to liberate men from themselves equally. That Brendan Cowell was struggling with and writing about this at the age of twenty-three shows a remarkable intuitive intellect – after all, David Mamet hasn’t worked this out yet, and he’s sixty-seven!
However, it’s the curious lightness of Cowell’s writing combined with the intense study of male subjectivity that gives Men its fascinating combination of relating a narrative that observes its path as a form of determinism. The audience witness each of the men as both free and determined subjects. They are archetypes, and as such obey and unwritten code, even though they have thoughts, feelings and ideas. The way Cowell brings all this together at the conclusion of the play in a super-lightweight and funny twist further immerses the play in a reflective attitude of self refusal. Are men really free subjects? Cowell suggests they’re not but even more than that, he suggests the question is a light and playful one that still manages to capture the horror of themes such as drug addiction, male upon female violence and sexual assault. Combine this with a distinct Australian voice impregnated with the “she’ll be right” aesthetic, and Men ends up being an hour of nuanced and complex takes on the perpetual sprouting of clichés around which the male psyche orbits as a form of directionless inevitability. And, while the language I use to relate this might be tedious, Brendan Cowell manages to give his language a weightlessness that makes the narrative feel like a maze of finely chiseled chalk rather than philosophical meanderings. Brendan Cowell is a deep thinker – and he knows not to bore you. Winning combo.
This particular manifestation of Men places considered emphasis on the lightness of the structure rather than getting into turgid imperatives over the very dark nature of the text. Jessica Tuckwell has done a fine job with a wonderful cast who play their roles for laughs, but also emphasise the caricature they represent with an emphasis on realism that becomes cheeky and contradictory in the final seconds of the play. Remarkably, judgement is almost absent, as the audience are rescued from having to form opinion about the characters, rather the encouragement to observe is always paramount. Tuckwell keeps this focus strong throughout the play by remaining playful even when the dark subject matter comes to the surface.
She’s got a lot to work with in her great cast, and creatives all of whom flourish under her deft hand. A stand out is Sean Hawkins as Jules, the self obsessed peacock perpetually spraying himself with an atomizer. Hawkins is great in the role, exploring a perfect combination of when the act teeters into the real and back again. His performance exemplifies the problem with archetypes; they can be more real than the truth some times. Ben O’Toole is crazy Bob, that guy we all know who will use violence and excessive verbal aggression to divert anyone around him from his transparent vulnerbilities. Bob is the most difficult character to play because his exposure will present us with the opposite of how he represents himself, and that transformation could feel forced in the wrong hands. But O’Toole carries his role through a smooth transition that almost has us feel sad and sorry for his rather unlikable archetype. Jamie Timony is Guy (fantastic name), suitably sweet, gentle and put upon as the sensitive creative type with the self-destructive streak. The three men are suitably pitted against the wily, sperm collecting Haizel (another great name) who presents a surreal version of a female archetype, part mother, part savior, part Queen bee.
All of this is plonked on a gorgeous set created by Tess Dorman who closes us in with her wall to wall copper piping and lighting and Alex Berlage who brings intense lighting design to create an oppressive white womb like intensity. Jed Silvers sound becomes all important toward the end, and creates one of the nights most fun moments.
Brendan Cowell is the man of the moment just now, giving us all a great opportunity to see a lot of his theatre. Men at the Old Fitz is a great production that you will be talking and thinking about for a long time.