An Argument About Sex ****

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  We watch Charlie and Helen interact in a small office, lit by blinding florescent lights, full of outdated technology and covered in a film of dust.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.


One Response

  1. Has everyone forgotten the title?

    Yes Helen and Charlie centre the arguement around the banking meltdown, but they also talk about relationships between men and women – about monogomy!

    Part Two is absolutely linked to Part One – because lets face it ‘last night’ they were arguing about the banking system but ‘today’ they are arguing about their relationship and whether or not to take it forward.

    An arguement about SEX.
    Which we see aptly performed in a beautiful setting you would love to discover as your own personal eden.
    Hormones run riot hence the title is SEX not GENDER… however this is only a clever word play because at root this is an arguement about Gender which you could argue is almost impossible to have without arguing about SEX.

    My biggest problem with this piece flared a little in Part One and raged wildly in Part Two with the meeting of of our two so-called socially deprived young women.

    It’s a testament to his era and his own projection of women that Marivaux would have the women instantly hate each other over a battle of vanity. Women war with each other over vanity for one reason only – the GAZE! – which is perpetrated by a patriarchial society seeking to objectify women. I don’t believe women objectify themselves without prompting!!! It’s a process that is drummed into them over years of breeding. From fairy tales to witnessing real world events they learn quickly to look pretty and shut up – they can always turn their talons on each other.

    The two isaacs prove this to us.
    The experiment is a farce. They have been raised by individuals who have imprinted these values on them.
    The women wear dresses, are told how beautiful they are constantly (notice the males are not told this!) and are given mirrors!
    By this point of course they take the mirror over the photograph – they have been bred to believe their vanity is right and complete!

    The men are given photographs of the women – objectifying them.
    The men are shown to get on as good friends. As I believe the women would have also done.
    The men are even shown not to bother fighting when the other steals his woman which is hilarious…

    Returning to Part One, Carter addresses a really serious issue with the feminist movement… ‘I am not a feminist, they are so grimey’…. I believed this myself up until only a few weeks ago. Heavens! Let’s not associate with that unattractive word!
    Men shall never like us if we are grimey feminists who wish to ascertain our equality with them.

    So there were my personal issues – amusingly I have tried to be brief.
    However I was looking for the film at the end to address my issues.
    To clarify a few points and really stimulate a debate afterwards.
    We the audience are to be the ARGUEMENT ABOUT SEX.
    But as you know it completely failed to do this!
    They talked piffle for most of it.
    And as kind as his intentions were I thoroughly disagreed with half of our goodly scientists comments.
    For instance I must be a man! I have an excellent sense of direction but I can never remember where I put things and lose my car keys and mobile phone so often it’s tragic.
    Why were they wasting our time with such piffle as opposed to asking the big questions?

    Finally this show is missing PART FOUR – the obvious part everyone is commenting on – the POST SHOW DISCUSSION.
    Had we been permitted to comment on the show afterwards and really have the ARGUEMENT this show would be deserving of 5 stars for it’s ingenuity. Sadly it remains weak by what appears to be a females aversion to taking risks!!!!

    Pamela Carter is too afraid to risk her career and reputation perhaps ( I don’t know, I’m surmising here as I don’t know what she has to lose, perhaps nothing and I’m wrong!) by admitting to be a feminist, because hey they are grimey. She lets us know right away – hey it’s okay. I’m not going to push this arguement about women being equal because I’m aware how ugly that whole debate is. Instead I’ll keep it topical and even add a bit of humour so you can have an entertaining evening.

    So actually one could argue that this piece settles the arguement of the night before between Helen and the room full of Hedge Fund Men. Women are more risk-averse… at least, Pamela Carter is, from what I can see, I’d love her to prove me wrong, because she is obviously an excellent writer headed in the right direction.

    To clarify I am not a Man-Hater, I love men, always have, always will. I am in a beautiful relationship and will one day probably marry. I am not an ogress, I am not a stunning beauty but I don’t think it would be fair to call me ugly, unless you caught me hungover and truely gruesome. I am a feminist until the day I can put the ‘grimey’ title aside and call myself what at root we all know each other to be ‘human’. Male or female – we are at root all the same, bar our biological differences of course 😉

    Now who’s ready to really argue with me?

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