22 April 2019

Sam Ross on the boy dichotomy in TANYA and Standing Too Close On Our Own In The Dark

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There is a well-critiqued concept in feminism called the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. For long periods of history, women were loutishly categorised by patriarchal society as either feeble virgins or dangerous sexually promiscuous sluts.

Stop me if I’m taking this too far. I feel like there’s a similar – albeit COMPLETELY different – stereotypical distinction of men in popular culture. Increasingly men are labelled as either sensitive feeble souls or dangerous sexually promiscuous dickbags. Softboys and Fuckboys.

Eugene Onegin is a fuckboy. In Alexander Pushkin’s original serial, he is a self-indulgent dandy who dismisses women as stupid and gullible, and who whilst getting his full comeuppance is nonetheless branded as a tragic hero of the literary canon. I know a couple of Eugenes in my life. They’re all insufferable.

Flora Wilson Brown’s adaptation TANYA drags this 19th Century fuckboy into the era of the oligarchs. Here, the privilege of the characters is even more pronounced. Considering at this festival we have seen some honest explorations of impoverished or working class individuals (such as in Yen for example), it seems really jarring to have a play that fully confronts us with the lavish petty concerns of the liberal elite.

My good friend Matilda Reith put it best when she said TANYA feels like “Made in Chelsea meets Uncle Vanya”. And I don’t really see the appeal of Made in Chelsea – isn’t it just posh people talking about relationships? Whilst not nearly as trite as that, I felt some of the conversations within Wilson Brown’s text were overlong and didn’t move the narrative forward as much as I would like. I think this may probably be down to the simplicity of Pushkin’s central narrative, as compared to the work of someone like Chekhov where the relationships are much more complex.

That being said, I think I’ve begun to warm to the play. The staging was magical and ominous. The sparseness of the images, under the direction of Jimmy Dougan, made effective use of the company’s limited resources – the beauty of the gold confetti giving way to the grimy clinginess of the glitter as decadence rots these characters from the inside out.

Jack Chamberlain’s character is a softboy. Unlike TANYA, Just Club’s Standing Too Close On Our Own In The Dark is based on a true story. Not Chamberlain’s story, mind you. It’s the guitarist’s story – Jake Marsden. I was only told of this on the way back from the venue.

The definition of a softboy is someone who says he’s in touch with his feelings but uses them against you. This is not exactly what this show does – there’s real emotional truth in the uncertainty about deep sensual connections between people (essentially, does she love me back?), especially when evoked in song. And in a sense theatre does this A LOT. Emotional manipulation (facilitation?) is a tool often employed in many plays, and perhaps it has the potential in this show to promote constructive discussions around obsession, heartbreak, substance abuse and mental health.

And yet. This is not Chamberlain’s story. Which would be fine if that was made clearer – not just in the festival programme but in the actual show itself. But although this narrative is delivered very convincingly by Chamberlain, it still doesn’t feel ‘authentic’ – whatever that means. In the post-show discussion, the team mentioned that the woman represented in the play saw it and liked it – why didn’t they decide to include this epilogue in the narrative? Or even her voice? Is the real-life truth being edited and manipulated to elicit pathos? And for whose sake?

So why discuss both the fuckboy of TANYA and the softboy of Standing Too Close... in the same article (aside from the fact I saw them on the same day)? These sociological trends of seeing someone of a particular gender as one of only two things is dangerously reductive and also a little lazy. We need more complex characters and complicated narratives for them to follow.

Eugene IS a fuckboy, but in Wilson Brown’s play we get hints of his vulnerability and emotional repression – these don’t excuse his behaviour, but they make his abandonment alone on stage at the end particularly pathetic (in both senses of the word). More of this complexity in all the characters would make the play especially tasty. Chamberlain’s character IS a softboy, but he can be so much more than that. I want Marsden to dig a little deeper into the wider themes surrounding this narrative of heartbreak (only as deep as he’s comfortable with, mind). Maybe by incorporating more of the woman’s side of the story and offering a fresh perspective on this well-trod plotline, Just Club Theatre could present a more critically authentic and complexly interesting story to tell.

@noffmag / [email protected] 

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney