Strong Arm, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing.

Roland Poland has a lot to prove. Cursed with rolls of fat and a ridiculous name, he finds unexpected strength after visiting Plates, a run-down gym above a butcher’s shop where pumping iron becomes a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Eyes transfixed on the goal of becoming Mr Britain and discovering what Arnold Schwarzenegger calls “The Pump”, Roland guzzles protein shakes and doses up on science, trying every tactic possible to get stronger.

Although entitled Strong Arm, Finlay Robertson’s protein- and testosterone-fuelled play is more concerned with another appendage. Roland, played with humour and granite-eyed determination by Robertson, fantasises about having veins so popped that he resembles a giant penis. He spunks while working out and reels off the names of “hardcore” supplements that have a hint of the pornographic. In a deeply sexualised world, strength seems to be synonymous with virility, offering a deeply critical vision of what it means to prove one’s masculinity.

Much like Roland, Robertson’s writing has more to it than it initially appears. While seeming to promise to be a vaguely amusing one-man show, it teases at our expectations, even offering up the dramatically disappointing possibility of sentimental catharsis before snatching it away again. Although grounded in a recognisable world, there is just enough strangeness to the writing – the unlikely, Dahl-esque names, the vividly grotesque descriptions – to lace the piece with a sense of the surreal and sinister.

The same might be said of Kate Budgen’s direction and James Turner’s design, which each reveal themselves as increasingly clever. The performance space is backed with a set of four mirrors, as rusting and distorted as Roland’s perception of himself, through which coloured strip lights flicker like the neon of strip clubs or of the signs on which Roland dreams of seeing his name.

Because ultimately this is all about self-identity. In a society in thrall to the media, in which outcasts can become superheroes and a bodybuilder is a Hollywood hero, to demonstrate superhuman strength is to gain fame, validation and, most importantly, acceptance.

Photo: Jassy Earl

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