“Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear.”
At the end of Ponyboy Curtis’ new show vs., six young male performers, sweaty and exhausted, repeatedly charge right at the audience. They run sometimes together, sometimes apart, always as if for the first time, always with an exuberant, fearsome energy, always seemingly forgetting that they have to come to a stop as soon as starting. Over this Dinah Washington, enveloped in Max Richter’s soul-crushing orchestration, sings “What good am I? Heaven only knows… Today you’re young/ Too soon you’re old.” I’ve rarely felt more brokenhearted.
This isn’t going to be a review. Not that I really do reviews but I’m not sure I have it in me to try, genuinely. I’m just going to try to explain some of what I thought about and felt during this extraordinary piece. Because I’ve no idea what “happened” or what it was “about”. It seemed about everything – what is a man? what is a human? what are we doing? – and nothing – these people seem nice. that willy is bigger than that willy. this is weird.
Ponyboy Curtis sells itself as a queer boyband collective: all twinky sex-party, radical loveplay, unsimulated sex. And that’s there. But what the show did at its most basic for me, in a way that knocked me off my feet, is to remythologise male sexuality; to offer a reconstitution of what it means to be a man and how men can relate to their bodies and each other.
The show repeatedly constructs rituals in which the boys play: it begins with a game of spin-the-bottle, where the Ponyboys number off and decide who’s doing what and then, well, and then they go free. It is constructed around (inspired, accompanied, supported by?) Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and features games in which the company run around their tribal circle made of clothes and select items of absurdly hipsterish garms that they then have to put on as quickly as possible and then continue running. As this speeds up, they can’t quite manage it, they throw clothes at each other, the whole thing collapses. They come to the front of the stage, they leap in micro-balletic gestures, staring above the audience’s head, hoping someone will do something, aware that no-one will.
These are people experiencing living with their naked bodies in front of an audience for the first time: I was at the first performance at The Yard, so this is quite precisely accurate for this newly formed iteration of the collective. They experimented with their own bodies and with others’. They exposed themselves in ways they felt comfortable with and occasionally in ways they might not have done.
You get the uncanny sense that, while this show is intended for an audience, it could happen without their presence. I didn’t feel ignored so much as entrenchedly complicit as a voyeur to a spectacle that invited the gaze. It is [here’s Benjamin again (promise I’ll explain the long quote above from Adorno in a bit)] the most clear example of Benjamin’s idea of “aura”, “distance as close as it can be”, that I have seen.
As the piece reaches its startling “climax” [I feel this word’s absurdity as soon as writing it, but the climactic moment of The Rite matches it, so I feel at least slightly bolstered] the selected sacrifice is made: ritualistic markings are drawn on the excluded figure, he is then forced [or merely observed in the act by the other performers] to spin round and round, dizzying himself, completely naked, falling on the ground, reeling from the fall, recovering, spinning, falling, recovering, spinning, falling, until you feel that this might never end, you feel that surely this is not funny any more, if it ever was, the human tissue in front of you becomes viscerally unhinged from our accepted sense of what we do together to each other and how community is formed.
And then they hug. And they kiss. And they are bonded. The sacrifice over, the sacrificial figure re-merges with the group.
As I was walking to the theatre beforehand I spotted at a distance that there were a group of young men on the street outside their school, probably about fourteen years-old, and they were attacking each other. They were holding one of the boys against the wall by his neck.
I was pretty panicked. All the things ran through my head that run through your head at that moment: fuck me, there are loads of them, what if they attack me back, but I should do something because I’m a sort of grown-up, but what if they’re just… And then the boy emerged from the brawl and he was beaming, all full of eccentric, bombastic confidence. And I remembered exactly that sort of horrible, testy, unpleasant, exhilarating contact – simultaneously violent and erotic – that used to make up my daily life between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. I doubt anyone emerged from adolescence without at least one example of it: the sort of physical contact that just doesn’t happen after a certain age, thank Christ, but that is peculiarly formative and uncodifiable.
That’s what this show, it seems to me, is about: the strange relationship between masculine sexuality and violence, the terror and exhilaration of male bonding that is allowed here to exist outside of normative homosocial structures. Because this piece, it should be said, is not locker-room. This is about as queer and radical and warmhearted a show as I’ve seen. It is a frank and nuanced depiction of male bodies as they could be, were they allowed to exist in a culture as open and free as the one this show invites. And effing fuck it’s brave.
The reason I started this piece with a quote from Dialectic of Enlightenment (apart from because it’s brilliant and I want you to think I’m clever) is because they are talking about fear: about culture’s desire to reign in those things that do not fit within antinomous or dialectical relations, about demythologisation in order to disregard the terror of not-knowing. This show, it seems to me, reasserts and examines the excesses at the world: it stares right at the terrifying, noisy stuff that makes up our barest selves, and generates a performance that is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying.
Quite a lot more than just a twinky boyband. But also that too. I urge you to go.