It is easy to be over-critical, even dismissive, of An Argument About Sex. It is made up of three parts that don’t quite complement each other, and its ambitious intentions are not successfully met. Even its very title sets the production up for a larger canvas of debate than is actually performed.
And yet, I was not only compelled by the production but in fact thoroughly enjoyed the full experience.
The production’s subtitle is: a response to Pierre de Marivaux’s ‘La Dispute’, which is a bit of a cheat as the second part is pretty much a modern spin on it. One of theatre’s greatest comedic minds, Marivaux’s play centres on a prince’s experiment. Using four teenagers who have been brought up away from society, the prince wants to test the ever popular debate over ‘nature vs. nurture’ with sex roles.
Writer Pamela Carter and director Stewart Laing take this premise and give it a contemporary setting. Here, we are presented with Charlie and Helen. Both work in the banking industry and are debating whether or not the current financial climate would have occurred had more women been in power. Charlie reveals that he has been paying for an experiment that will soon test which sex is the more powerful and honest. Four children had been purchased (overseas, of course) by a television company; they have been well-provided for in isolation and are about to meet each other for the first time.
Part one, called ‘An Argument’, is handled in a naturalistic way. We watch Charlie and Helen interact in a small office, lit by blinding florescent lights, full of outdated technology and covered in a film of dust. The conversation is handled with such a realistic hand that it feels as if we are listening in on an actual conversation rather than watching a performance, and it proves to be very interesting. Fascinating points are discussed, including the notion of risk taking in business and in love, the effect that corporate-mindedness can have on personal relationships and how competitive natures can lead to destruction. Some of the performance aspects feel a bit wooden, but in fact these choices make it all feel the more real and less theatrical.
In many ways, part two, called ‘The Experiment’, is the first part’s antithesis. It is played in a large garden, complete with a running stream, artificial grass and lawn chairs that are dotted throughout for the audience. Here, we watch the four teenagers run about, interact, fall in love and argue, all under the watchful eye of two caretakers. It’s all done in a creative manner that makes excellent use of the rather large Tramway 1 space. Sightlines are a bit of an issue and the mics that all six actors use aren’t always able to pick up dialogue, but the presentation is so well done that it’s hard not to get caught up in the action. Actors rush around the audience, sometimes even brushing past or speaking over audience members. Such directional decisions make the rather large action feel personal, and it gives everything an appreciated playfulness.
However, it is one’s reaction to part three, entitled ‘Sex’, which will probably define one’s view of the full production. Near the end of part two, a pre-recorded film is shown. In it, Carter, Laing and scientist Matt Ridley have a conversation about sex roles and discuss the actions of all eight characters, all while Charlie and Helen look on within the audience. By blatantly discussing the themes at hand, it does feel out of place, almost like forcing one to learn what would usually be covered in either programme notes or in an after-show discussion. However, it does actively turn the tables on the two lead characters, making the watchers the watched, which is an interesting way to end the performance.
Each part is so radically different in style and execution that the seams are not only obvious but also make the full performance feel disjointed. Each makes a promise that the following section not only fails to deliver on but also contradicts, resulting in a production that may be excellent in parts but does not contain a full theatrical flow.
This does work to an advantage for one great moment, and that is when the audience first moves into the garden. The effect that walking into that space has is one of the most potent moments I have experienced in some time, and that feeling could not have been created had I just walked into it from the lobby or if part one’s set had been opened up.
However, one can still not escape the fact that the great so-called argument, the debate on whether male testosterone led to the financial meltdown, is never really entered into. Hints are made in part one and the film addresses the issue for fleeting moments, but part two is far more interested in an almost by-the-numbers war of the sexes play. And the film itself feels more like a great cheat. There is a cardinal rule in the arts: show, don’t tell. And though the film is done in an interesting manner, it is one long ‘tell’.
The seams may be disjointed and the production may not even come close to analysing what it originally sets out to do, but An Argument About Sex is still a very good production. It is well produced and performed, and it is handled with consistent creativity and some rather remarkable flourishes. It may have set out to achieve the impossible, and it certainly doesn’t even come close to answering any of its questions, but it still is performed with such great flare and energy and contains some wonderful moments of both comedy and dramatic insight that it is still well worth attending.
An Argument About Sex is at the Tramway until October 17. It then transfers to the Traverse, where it plays from October 29 until November 7.
Filed under: Glasgow-based theatre productions |