The intention of I Promise You Sex and Violence is right there in its title. This is a piece that sets out to shock, to confront, to prod at the darker side of our desires. In its execution, however, it’s less taboo-busting than perplexing. Over a muddled hour, what it’s trying to say never quite becomes apparent. Not that a piece of theatre necessarily has to explicitly say anything, but this so clearly sets out with a statement to make. What that statement might be is anyone’s guess.
The convoluted plot of David Ireland’s play involves a spiky love triangle, between three friends who compulsively lie to one another and themselves. On one corner is Bunny, who is persuaded to set up his two best friends, female flatmate Charlie and recently divorced Raymond (or “Q”). Charlie thinks Bunny is gay, while he has Raymond convinced that he is straight. After a disastrous first date, the lives of these three confused individuals become increasingly entangled, at the same time as their interactions break down and misogyny, racism and homophobia creep up through the cracks.
The issues touched upon through this trio of messed-up, deeply unpleasant characters are all interesting and urgent: identity, sexuality, tolerance and intolerance. The play, however, just wades through the filthy quagmire of contemporary life’s grubbier features, seeming to delight in getting itself dirty. There are similarities with Vicky Jones’ play The One, in that Ireland too is interested in rehearsing debates that push at the edges of accepted conversation and speak the unspeakable. But where The One was queasily problematic, this verges on the simply juvenile.
It doesn’t help that Ireland is also desperately straining for topicality. Questions of sexual politics and identity are relevant enough by themselves, without needing to drop in clunky comments about Twitter abuse and Michael Gove. Like so much in this play, its gestures towards recent headlines remain gestures only – and empty gestures at that.
There is, somewhere amid the clumsy efforts to offend, a hint of something more interesting. The challenge of being honest with ourselves and others at the same time as tolerating and understanding difference is a constant negotiation of modern urban life, but Ireland has little to contribute to this discussion beyond crude, rude gags.
Lorne Campbell’s production, meanwhile, struggles to wring laughs from this misfiring material – unless they are stunned gasps of incredulity. The desire to offend the audience is not a sin in itself; shock can sometimes be one of the most powerful weapons in theatre’s arsenal. Here, though, that shock does no service to the subject matter. It’s a big blow, given the promise of Northern Stage’s Edinburgh line-up and the great work it is doing elsewhere in the programme, but I Promise You Sex and Violence is offensive for all the wrong reasons.