This Will End Badly, Southwark Playhouse

Ben-Whybrow-in-This-Will-End-Badly-3.-Credit-Ben-Broomfield-600x401

Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of Rob Hayes’ latest play is a promise. This will end badly. And not just for the trio of troubled protagonists whose stories his fragmented, three-part monologue rapidly snaps between. The whole male sex, contorted under the pressures of modern masculinity, comes out of this badly. As his portraits of wounded, angry men make clear, it is not only women who suffer under the rigid, oppressive structures of patriarchy. Hayes’ prowling alpha male character, describing tactics for picking up women, puts it most succinctly: “it exists within a framework”.

The framework of the piece itself, however, is often unclear. It begins confusingly: performer Ben Whybrow, intense from the outset, rattles through the words at astonishing speed, clearly speaking from more than one perspective – but whose? Only gradually do three distinct (and sometimes less distinct) voices emerge. One man, reeling from a recent breakup, is suffering from a case of extreme constipation; it’s almost two weeks since his girlfriend left him and he still can’t take a dump. Another is trapped by different forces, confined to his flat by chronic anxiety and OCD, frantically turning switches on and off. And a third is on the hunt for casual sex, in the process of making his latest conquest. If the three are occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another, it’s surely deliberate. These three men represent three jagged shards of modern masculinity, all harmed and harming as part of the same, long-entrenched system.

The central scatological metaphor – immediately signalled by the toilet in one corner of Jemima Robinson’s otherwise sparse set – can’t be missed. A lot of shit has built up here, and it’s not so much hitting the fan as poisonously accumulating. The message may not be subtle, but it lands with force in Clive Judd’s relentlessly fast-moving production. These men are emotionally as well as physically constipated, blocked up by a world that tells them to control their feelings, to project confidence, to dominate others. What we see is a male culture that has little room for vulnerability or tenderness; a culture in which suicide – the statistics of which one character obsessively lists – might seem like the only way out.

There are points of meeting and overlap with Chris Goode’s furious, scaldingMen in the Cities, another collection of voices from men flailing under the violence of patriarchy. Next to Goode’s piece, though, This Will End Badly feels strangely incomplete, stating rather than interrogating its points and at times doing little more than replicating the abuse it examines. It is also, unlike Men in the Cities, overwhelmingly preoccupied with the predicament of the straight white man in today’s society, a choice that sharpens its focus but at the same time narrows its scope.

The pick-up artist – his monologue tellingly titled ‘Meat Cute’ – is in many ways the most interesting and the most problematic of the three men put on stage. He speaks in the plural first person, always ‘we’ and ‘us’, as if acting as a conduit for the entire gender. He could also be a conduit for countless opinion pieces and online comments about sexual politics and consent, mansplaining the media’s impossibly contradictory standards of femininity (“How do you even know what you’re supposed to want?”) and toying dangerously with rape apologism. Hayes’ introduction of these issues is blunt and bludgeoning, especially when knocking up against the humour elsewhere. When occupying this role, meanwhile, Whybrow often delivers lines directly to (always female, as far as I could tell) members of the audience, with an aggression that wavers between the ironic and the downright violent. It raises a serious question, especially with material that may be a trigger for some: when does a representation of harm become simply harmful?

This is not a question that This Will End Badly really attempts to address, instead using these difficult moments as part of its (admittedly formidable) critical arsenal. Still, it’s a disturbing and intense window on the twenty-first century man, its abrupt conclusion leaving behind a lingering sense of unease. The urgent implication, as the whole destructive cycle prepares to start again, is that if something doesn’t change then things will continue to end badly – again and again and again.

Photo: Ben Broomfield.

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