The man we’re watching, today at least, is comedian Nish Kumar. He’s standing in the centre of the Roundabout looking a lot more nervous than he does when he’s laying down his own smart, political brand of comedy. He’s got a great stage presence, an easy and confident way about him – but he looks a little anxious as we watch him tonight. The stage manager enters with a sheaf of paper, a script by an anonymous female-identifying author. It’s a good thick bundle. Kumar laughs and shuffles back and forth, finding his starting point in this unknown text and unusual 360° theatre. Coughs. Clears throat. Shuffles. Here goes.
It’s a text about men. Not men in the abstract, though more abstract ideas of masculinity are touched upon, but on one woman’s experiences with men and how her own sexual and emotional life has interfaced with men across the years. It’s told in the first person, and the narrator says she’s a writer, so naturally we presume she’s the writer. But of course she may well not be.
Presuming she is, and presuming that the format of this show, made anonymous and shared by a performer who we’re unlikely to identify with the author, is acting as a kind of confessional. The details she shares are certainly candid. We start with a list of the features she finds attractive. A good bum. Strong calves. Long fingers, but not too long. She describes early sexual stirrings, and her first awkward encounters. She knows what her audience really want to hear about, and obliges us by skipping forward to the sex bits. She’s funny and disarmingly honest. She talks about desire, and it’s only when she does, when this man speaks about this invisible woman’s desire, that you realise how rarely desire is discussed like this, how invisible it has itself become.
The structure of the desire she describes is nothing like the logic of lust which is sold by advertisers and lifestyle magazines, or even that generally finds its way onto stage. It’s complex and contradictory, it develops from surprising people and situations, and it fluctuates. It’s simultaneously chaotic, in that it refuses to obey conventions like ‘attractiveness’, and reliable, in that the success or failure of a wank can provide a useful weathervane for the heart.
It’s a text about men, but women keep sliding in at the sides. The author takes stock of her appearance, enjoying the fact that, for once, her frank discussion of sex isn’t coloured by a knowledge that she’s being assessed – that her stories are viewed without the lens of her own perceived desirability. She wonders how many surgical procedures she’d need to attain the status of ‘super good looking’, she wonders if that status would have made her life easier, or harder.
It’s when she talks about women that she says the most vital things about men. It is the way that she and the women in her life find their paths through the world, and the visibility of their movement, that sketches in the kind of world that men have created. She touches on issues of consent, and the way that many women have internalised a seriously corrupted idea of acceptable sexual behaviour. She talks about the taboo of masturbation, and gleefully describes how her and her friends tore it apart. She addresses her decision to remain anonymous, that she didn’t want to become that ‘sex person’, to take on the stigma attached to women who speak openly about their own sexuality.
Having all of these thoughts, all of these secrets and worries and observations, performed by Kumar isn’t necessarily to distance them. There is a distinctive voice at play here, it forces itself through. This set up could feel voyeuristic, like leafing through someone’s diary, but here it’s surprisingly light and liberating. There’s laughter and there are gasps of recognition, the text as much of a statement of solidarity as a polemic.
This may be where something comes unstuck at the centre of Manwatching. It’s in a very early stage, with the performances in the Roundabout being a pilot for future development, but at the moment it’s just a little too easy. Other performers may generate more grit, but with Kumar there is little friction between the form and the content, it feels natural and fluent. Where An Oak Tree and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit justify their acts of textual ambush through their themes or contexts, Manwatching fails to make the most of its act of authorial removal. At times it almost feels hypocritical, as the author defiantly smashes taboos behind a protective screen of anonymity. But if that is the case, we are reminded that it’s the behaviour of men, and the prejudices of a culture men have shaped in their own image, that has necessitated it.
Manwatching is a peephole into the intricacies of sex, of its physical, emotional and political substance. It reaches out to the universal through a community of shared confidences and experiences: a dissolution of the convenient and saleable clichés that are the mechanisms of patriarchal control.