When boys and girls come out to play, chances are at some point end up fighting. Which may have something to do with why the two winners of this year's Platform 18 theatre-making award at the Arches in Glasgow have kept to their own, gender-wise. While Peter McMaster offers up an all-male adaptation of Emily Bronte's windswept romance, Wuthering Heights, Amanda Monfrooe looks to classical Greek forms for POKE in which the last two women in the world explore notions of male violence against women, and how they reached the state they're in. While such exercises in what looks like separatist sexual politics sound like the sort of thing that came out of a 1970s, the-personal-is-political line of inquiry, the younger generation of theatre-makers who McMaster and Monfrooe are part of are tackling their subjects with a refreshingly contemporary seriousness.
“We're finding ways to understand modes of expression of men,” says McMaster. “I've fixated on the character of Heathcliff. He's an orphan, and as a reader you don't know why he's so aggressive. Then there's this weird mysterious part of the book when he disappears, and comes back with all this money. By asking questions about that, we might be able to fill the gaps, but we're also finding out what are the important questions we should be asking about ourselves as men.”
Given that, besides Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights' main character is Cathy, much of this has involved McMaster and co putting on dresses in the rehearsal room, and exploring how that makes them feel. McMaster is all too aware that having men playing women in serious drama is something that fates back to Shakespeare's day, when boy players would take on the lead female roles. This tradition was rebooted too by Edward Hall's all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller. One thinks too of comedian Eddie Izzard and artist Grayson Perry, both of whom enjoy wearing women's clothes without recourse to dragging it up.
“It's perhaps different for us than it was with Shakespeare,” McMaster observes, “because then you had a man playing a woman, and everyone knew it was a man, so it was the actor's job to convince you otherwise. What we're doing isn't drag, and we're not trying to be women, so we don't know what it is. We're inhabiting a grey area of what's already a grey area, and we're enjoying the sensation of wearing a dress just for how it makes us feel. It's fun to put a dress on, and it's fun to enjoy the melodrama of the story, and get to be emotional in a way men might not normally be, but we're not trying to address the problems of feminism here, but the problems of masculinism, which is a word you won't find in the dictionary.”
Wuthering Heights is the public side of a process in which McMaster and his company have been going on retreats and spending other time together beyond the rehearsal room in a way that sounds like a men's group. Given that McMaster himself is part of several men's groups, this is an observation he's more than happy to accept.
“It's about seeing what happens when as a group of men you go to vulnerable places,” he says, “and to find spaces for reflection on things that might be important in our lives. There are no easy answers, but I like going to raw places, and if people don't want to go there, I like to try and get them to go there with me.”
McMaster's previous work at the Arches and on the Forest Fringe includes House, in which the audience smashed up discarded furniture and made something new from it, several solo works, and
The Fire Burns and Burns, a collaboration with Nic Green. Monfrooe's back catalogue includes How Keanu Reeves Saved The World, some cabaret styler pierce at her devised performance event, Love Club, and a stint on placement with the National Theatre of Scotland to develop her practice.
With POKE, Monfrooe goes beyond the likes of McMaster's personal meditations to expose how the whole notion of something that might be called the sex wars goes way beyond metaphor. She wasn't short of material.
“It writes itself,” she says. “Every time I look at the news, there's a barrage of stories regarding the violation of women's freedom in every country, and it's getting worse. Things have gotten out of control, and there's no rhyme or reason for that. There's a sexual apocalypse, whereby anybody's game. A little girl was raped, but her best friend says, well, you shouldn't have worn that. If the female body is game, then it's the male body next. Then it's bestiality and paedophilia. There's this feeling that we're on a slippery slope. Peter feels the need to ask questions of himself as a man, whereas, as a woman, I'm angry. We need to take a frank look at sex, our bodies, and what our bodies have been reduced to.”
While this may sound extreme for some, it is in keeping with a practice and an aesthetic which Monfrooe has developed over the last half decade.
“All of my work has been about asking big questions,” she says. “but this isn't an issue-based play, and it isn't polemic, because we don't solve the problem of sexual violence, and that's because it can't be solved. There's something fundamental that says men and women can't live together in harmony, and that's to do with the little dangly bit between a man's legs.”
Monfrooe laughs when she says this, but, while there is levity in the play, she's deadly serious.
“The phallus was prized in Greek culture,” she says. “and women were slaves, although they were valued for their beauty and their intelligence. What I'm interested in is playing with form, and the Greek structure of inevitability, where everything always comes to a violent end. POKE starts like that, but then goes somewhere else. I wanted to talk about something that's really difficult, then take a sideways glance at it. Our role is to ask, not to answer, and to leave the ellipses for the audience to answer. I can't occupy an ideological position with any commitment, but someone like Peter is asking a very different set of questions to the ones I am, and that's brave.”
Wuthering Heights and POKE, The Arches, Glasgow, April 23-27; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 1-3
The Herald, April 16th 2013