Originally written for Exeunt.
I can’t get the music loud enough.
Huddled on the train, freshly hurled out of Ponyboy Curtis at The Yard and into the cold, jagged, rain-flecked world, I want the music coursing through my headphones to fill me up, to vibrate through my pores. Nothing is loud enough, bright enough, vivid enough, tender enough.
The post-Ponyboy world feels like a grey but – slightly, almost imperceptibly – changed place.
So what is Ponyboy Curtis?
It’s a party.
It’s an intervention.
It’s an ensemble.
It’s a call to revolution.
It’s a fleeting alternative space, precariously carved out of the worlds of late capitalism.
It’s an invitation to intimacy.
It’s a shot to the heart.
It’s a kick to the gut.
It’s a blast to the eardrums.
It’s not quite like anything else.
“The naked actor is often the most powerful person in the room, partly because they’ve got nothing left to hide.” – Chris Goode
Let’s start with the nudity. Because there’s a lot of nudity. In its repeated acts of dressing and undressing, edges of the stage littered with clothes, this piece – show? experience? space? – feels like a thinking through of nakedness on stage. What does it do? How can that unclothedness be both extraordinary and natural at once? What dynamic does it create with an audience – dressed, distant, looking on?
On the clothed side of that divide, it’s not so much the erotic charge of all those naked bodies that I notice. It’s the astonishing expanse of bared skin: the gentle curve of a collarbone, the pulsing movement of a calf muscle. The brush of a finger against a palm, or the sweep of a hand along the small of a back. Small intimacies, not necessarily sexual, but aching with care.
There’s an ease to this near-perpetual nakedness, but also a provocation. Look at me, the performers dare, occasionally meeting our gaze with a challenge in their eyes. At moments, they appear vulnerable; at others, they are diamond-hard, invincible. Stripped to their skin, the shedding of clothes clads them in a different kind of power.
Looking on, it suddenly occurs to me that nearly all of the most heart-stealing, chest-tightening moments I’ve experienced in the theatre in recent months have circled around nudity – around bodies, tender and exposed. Peter McMaster and Nick Anderson struggling and embracing in 27. Jonah Russell and Oliver Coopersmith tentatively reaching out to one another and then drawing apart in The Mikvah Project. These beautiful, ravishingly brave boys at The Yard falling and jumping and kissing and dancing.
The texture of Ponyboy Curtis is one of nakedness and intimacy and radical energy, but also one of boybands and dance music and buddy movies. Like The Ramones, each of the performers has taken on the temporary surname ‘Ponyboy’, but huddled around a microphone, caps slanted at angles on their heads, they’re more like Take That. The polish of the manufactured pop band, but without the perfect, plastic, stage-managed sheen of One Direction.
Boyband. Gang of mates. Lovers. Men embracing to pumping music. Men strutting, naked and clothed and partly clothed. All these different masculinities. It’s hard not to think of all the characters in Men in the Cities – those broken, contorted boys and men. There’s hurt here too, in the bodies that crumple to the ground and the voices that howl, but in so many ways Ponyboy Curtis is a celebration of all the masculinities that the glass and concrete prisons of Men in the Cities disallow. Masculinities that are gentle, fragile, questioning, joyful. Masculinities founded on care rather than aggression.
Very little is said. This is a theatre of bodies and noise and feeling, not a theatre of words. Quotes, read aloud from pieces of paper tacked to the wall, occasionally slice through the pounding soundtrack but quickly become swallowed up by everything else around them, their traces dissolving. The only words that really stay with me are those of the evening’s guest, Hannah Nicklin, whose letter to her big little brother makes me think of my own three big little brothers and all the harm I worry about patriarchy inflicting on them, all the attitudes they easily absorb and reproduce. Her words make me think again about the world outside this flickering, captivating space and the sort of masculinity that is permissible there.
Then I’m out in that world again, the bright lights of Ponyboy Curtis glittering on my retinas and its music humming faintly in my ears. I don’t yet have words – let alone sentences – to describe or respond to it. Even now, I’m only fumbling towards something like that space and what it made me feel. This is a thinking through of how to write about Ponyboy Curtis, just as the performance I saw – sat alongside? inside? – last Thursday night felt like a thinking through of what this collection of people and ideas might or could be.
Thinking through. Feeling at the edges. Pushing at the walls. Starting something.