We invest objects on stage with a strange sort of magic. Just ask anyone who saw Kris Verdonck’s Dancer#3 and cooed over a jumping piece of metal (honestly, I defy you to watch the video without a single “aww” escaping your lips). In the same way as a person can stand in for something or someone else, objects take on a representational charge.
Which makes the theatre an interesting place for Chloe Mashiter’s examination of objectum sexuality. Hang on, objectum whatnow? Chances are, those two words won’t mean a lot to you. What if I say “the woman who married the Eiffel Tower”? Or “the man who has a thing for cars” (and not in a Jeremy Clarkson kind of way)?
That’s part of the problem that Object Love attempts to prod at. Those who identify as objectum sexual – OS for short – are generally either sidelined or mocked, made into exhibits by the tabloid press and the circus freakshow strand of documentary television. Mashiter, by contrast, approaches her subject matter with delicate yet curious compassion. The whole piece sighs with a frustrated desire to understand, balanced by an implicit recognition of the huge distance it is attempting to bridge.
Drawing on interviews with a number of OS people, Object Love tentatively explores what it is to be in love not with a person but with an object – a building, a musical instrument, a camera. The “love” part of its title is essential: as portrayed by Mashiter and her small cast of three, these are not people with a snigger-worthy sexual fetish, but individuals who are head over heels for the objects they have chosen to spend their lives with. A teenage girl embracing her toy train is just as giddy as another might be with her first boyfriend.
But, you may quite reasonably ask, how does it work? How can that relationship be considered at all reciprocal? How do you have physical intimacy? And what do you say to people when they want to meet your partner? Mashiter anticipates all these questions and countless more, leaving room for puzzlement alongside empathy. No, says one character, I don’t have something wrong with me. No, I’m not going to talk about my sex life, another chips in. These are the moments when the piece is at its strongest, as the three OS characters bat away multiple unspoken queries about their orientation, always running out of time to explain themselves. Meanwhile, paper accumulates on the walls and floor, hinting at the reams of extra information that it is impossible to include.
Because – let’s be honest – a lot of what intrigues about Object Love is the unusual nature of its subject matter. It may be framed more sensitively, but Mashiter’s show is courting just the same kind of curiosity that draws viewers to the documentaries that Object Love‘s characters are so bruised by and scornful of. This is acknowledged, turning our inquisitive gaze at least partly back on ourselves, while at the same time recognising the limitations of theatre as a forum to discuss this. There’s only so much that can be done with some interview material and an hour of stage time.
For all its tender attempts at understanding, however, the piece still feels a little strained. Directness, in contrast to the manipulative techniques of documentary makers, is what works best, but still Mashiter feels compelled to break the startling openness of this style of address to stage small scenes from the characters’ backstories. Object Love might do better to simply confront us with the human beings and relationships it is interested in, daring us to understand.