Sarah Kane once said ‘if you want to write about extreme love, you can only write about it in an extreme way’ (Graham Saunders, About Kane: The Playwright and the Work).
Sentimentalism then, if this is what sentimentalism is, seeps into Penetrator, Phil Croft’s revival of Anthony Neilson’s ‘in-yer-face’ drama – a phrase, coined by Aleks Sierz, which has itself erroneously come to mean plays that illustrate only surface level brutality and violence.
Written initially as a reaction to the anti-sentimental tendencies of Thatcherism, Penetrator is set in the 1990s and ‘Cool Britannia’ but here is updated to the 21st Century, with references to ISIS, nerf guns and Internet porn. As the story unfolds of Alan and Max in their adolescent and nostalgic, porn and coke infested flat – invaded by their friend, the increasingly sociopathic ex-squaddie Tadge – one questions whether the update can have the same social significance as it did in the Royal Court’s 1994 production. Other than the exploration of crude male fantasises and repressed homosexual feelings that show difference only in the way in which they find expression and outlet, is there anything else this play can give?
Despite the play’s language now sounding archaic – “poofs”, “bumboy” and “faggot”- and Alexander Pardey’s very laddish Mighty Boosh-like Max and Jolyon Price’s simmering metrosexual Alan seeming at odds with one another, the shock of Tadge’s depraved violent methods interposing on the naturalistic world of Alan and Max remains the same. The story seems simple enough: Tadge, played by a quietly electric Tom Manning, is suffering some sort of trauma having being continually gang raped whilst in the army. We don’t know if this is true, although it is clear that he has experienced something.
Tom Manning gets across the same amount of unpredictability and danger that is mindful of Morel in Shane Meadow’s film A Room for Romeo Brass or Mike Leigh’s anti hero, Jonny, in Naked. It is the kind of danger that will not quite, here at least, fulfil itself on stage. Max and Alan’s reaction to Tadge is complex. Tadge brings a different kind of reality into a world where Max and Alan’s relationship, though built around infantile perceptions of women, never borders on violence or any kind of physical relationship.
The extreme sentimentalism and Alan’s here-questionable sexuality only ever manifests itself through words or childish interactions with teddy bears. Phil Croft has fun with role-play, at times Max and Alan mimic the tones of English gents, at other times, they sound and look like Hackney Hipsters. Whatever they do, their relationship with one another is thrown into shadow by Tadge’s arrival, coming back to claim what is rightfully his – a premise cleverly set up by the director at the top of the play, when we see Tadge standing over a sleeping Max, acting out a sexual fantasy that we don’t know to be true or not (and, as Tadge is thumbing a lift on a motorway somewhere, gets one thinking about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin).
There is nothing new with the idea of characters who have suffered trauma or are in someway different from the norm who then explore and expose different possible realities to others around them. Alan’s difficulties with his sexuality are exposed by Tadge, and the concreteness of his friendship with Max is undermined when unspoken boundaries are reversed and upturned. Alan and Max touch hands only once and fleetingly when Max tries to calm him, but we learn that there is far more going on between Tadge and Max than conversational tricks, and far more that Alan cannot understand. The question is, who is the most psychologically damaged and who is the most safe and secure? It’s certainly not who we think in this clever production, which honours Dominic Dromgoole’s claim that Anthony Neilson is a ‘truly moral writer.’ If ‘love’, because this is what the play is about, could be all sweet smelling and blue skies then it would be easy. But this is a lie, and sometimes, as we see here, the true path to love might not always be paved with goodness and the right kind of morality.