Two Man Show

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Originally written for Exeunt.

On the evening I see RashDash’s new show, the internet is still ablaze with Donald Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” comments. And let’s be clear about those comments: the man who might (oh please, please no) become the next leader of the most powerful nation in the world thinks of women as passive trophies and of consent as something trifling and optional. In his words, “you can do anything.”

But wait. It’s just locker room talk. It’s just what men say. It’s just a bit of banter. Isn’t it?

Two Man Show is “about” the contemporary crisis in masculinity. But, like most RashDash shows, its stated subject is only part of the story. Two Man Show is a takedown of the patriarchy; it’s a fearsome howl of anger; it’s a punk-rock feminist anthem; it’s a dance with the impossible; it’s spiky and beautiful and wounded and joyous.The show falls, roughly speaking, into three acts (a warped mirroring of the well-made play that is, I suspect, no accident). Warning: spoilers lie ahead. In the first act, Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland come on stage with musician Becky Wilkie and proceed to correct everything we think we know about historic gender relations. First there was equality, then women were the goddesses, then the men – threatened and afraid – learned the tricks of dominance. Squeaky voiced and decked in silver and gold, Helen and Abbi are exaggerated portraits of both femininity and power – and playful with it.

The second act, which accounts for the greatest portion of the show, switches between two distinct performance modes. In one, Helen and Abbi shrug on remarkably convincing male personas, in a deliberately familiar (yet brilliantly written) soap-opera-esque narrative of two estranged brothers. Unschooled in the language of emotion, the two men enter an awkward, strained intimacy in the final days of their father’s life. Between these sort-of-naturalistic scenes are dance sequences typical of RashDash’s aesthetic, in which the two performers fling one another around the stage, often naked or partially clothed.

And then, in the final act, the pattern we think we’ve mastered is suddenly torn apart at the seams. Every doubt or question or criticism that might have flickered through our minds throughout the show is voiced by “John”, Abbi’s male character, who firmly asserts his presence on the stage, abruptly cutting short the next “dance bit”. What’s with the dance anyway? he demands. And when did being a man become synonymous with being a cunt?

It’s hard, if not impossible, to pin Two Man Show down. RashDash occupy and appropriate. They deconstruct and smash apart. Traditionally “masculine” forms – history, with all its reassuring certainty, and the sturdy male dialogue of the social realist play – are turned inside out. Dramaturgically, the piece moves from a place of unshakeable confidence (“we know everything,” Abbi and Helen grin at us, dressed as prehistoric goddesses) to one of radical uncertainty. “I can’t pretend to be certain,” Helen tells us in her final speech, after “John” and Abbi have had their say. I’ve always struggled with that too. But maybe certainty is politically dangerous. Maybe uncertainty is underrated.

If Two Man Show is rife with uncertainty, it also has plenty of space for confidence and assertion, not least in the ways RashDash present themselves on stage. Watching Abbi and Helen move through the space, oscillating in the movement sequences between traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” physicalities, what strikes me most of all is the strength of their bodies. Strength, like so many other things, has been socially and culturally constructed as masculine, but these women are so so strong. And in the space they hold open, nudity becomes power. Yes, they’re playing with the dynamics of the male gaze, particularly during a sequence in which Abbi moulds Helen’s pliable body into a series of familiar poses. But the way in which these two women display their bodies also feels controlled and empowering and really fucking badass. At certain points, I almost wanted to throw off my clothes and leap on stage with them, beating my chest and howling with righteous rage. (And as anyone who knows me can attest, I’m far from an exhibitionist)

But this isn’t only about what it is to be a woman in a patriarchal society. Men are also oppressed by patriarchy, also hemmed in and squashed down. RashDash’s two brothers are slack-shouldered and somehow shrunken, inches suddenly slashed off the magnificent height that Abbi and Helen had just moments earlier as they paced the stage. Without erasing the privilege their gender lends them, these characters’ complaints are given real weight. There’s an implicit criticism of mansplaining, but also an acknowledgement that it’s hard for men to know how to be in a world that both encourages and punishes the traditional markers of masculinity.

I’m saying all this like RashDash’s show is an essay on contemporary gender relations, when really it defies simple analyses and easy explanations. Two Man Show performs its own deconstruction, as if to turn around and say “you didn’t think it would really be that straightforward, did you?” Like in We Want You to Watch (though more powerfully here), RashDash point to and pick away at their own failures, which they’re acutely aware of, while simultaneously unsettling the very standards of success and failure.

Andrew Haydon read the piece as a critique of British theatre’s drive towards communication and “well-balanced arguments”. But I think the attack on meaning and reason and legibility goes further than that. It came across, to me, as a scathing commentary on the ways in which – in so many different public arenas – men pick apart the statements of women, deride them if they don’t meet some imagined standard of “reasonableness”, laugh that they must be “on their period” in the same way female anger was once diagnosed as hysteria (but hey, it’s just a joke, right lads?).

By the end, Two Man Show is gloriously, brilliantly messy. In their final monologues, Helen and Abbi throw everything at us: all the different ways of being a woman or a man or of rejecting gender entirely. There are no answers, only questions and frustrations. But for all the fury, that concluding mess – the tangle of unresolved and perhaps irreconcilable contradictions – feels to me like a sigh of relief. Yes, this is complicated and knotty, and no it can’t be unravelled by a polite, reasonable, well-made play. Just being able to say that, being able to put that mess on the stage, is one of the most liberating acts of the whole piece. We can know what we’re against – “locker room talk”, mansplaining, the laughter that casually envelops an endemic rape culture – without necessarily being able to articulate what we’re for.

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