It is difficult to explain The Absolute Truth About Absolutely Everything– the second show of Calm Down Dear’s double bill with Blush – without explaining my personal journey with it. The piece left me incredibly angry. Describing itself as a show about the ‘crisis of masculinity’, writer and performer Olly Hawes has created several monologues, apparently transcribed thoughts that were recorded in a few different instances, including watching Girls at home and sitting in a Pret. At each performance an unprepared female performer read them out. In between these pieces of text, he plays a couple of games, asks her some questions and does a little improvisation with her.
Why did this irritate me so much? Partly the vacuous, narcissistic nature of the first two speeches – full of his hyper-self-aware ethical hypocrisy, or the hyper-truthful detailing of looking at two different strangers and thinking about “fucking [them] up the ass in the toilets.” He was invasive, interrogating Charlotte (the female of the night) in an uncomfortable way and asking her, “How attractive am I on a scale from one to ten?”; “Are you enjoying the game?”; “How good a person am I on a scale of one to ten?”; “Do you have a partner?”
Turning Charlotte into his mouthpiece when discussing his pornographic preference truly disgusted me. Hawes has her talk in great technical detail about anal prolapses, and a violent attack on a porn star. He makes her vocally reenact with him a scene from the film of this brutally attacked woman. This, and so much more. Indeed, I feel the need to mention that there is a lot of graphic content, which one might not suspect reading the show’s marketing materials.
I left the show angry at how this self-proclaimed “feminist” recreated a sexist power dynamic by forcing a female performer into saying his misogynistic thoughts; at how he put her into a sexualised position; at how he seemed to subtly assert his authority even when she was given a small sliver of performative power; at how he choked up after forcing his audience and colleague to listen to details of his masturbation session.
I tried to understand if my negative reaction was intended. At one point, Hawes says to Charlotte, “I don’t know if we’re creating something together, or if I am just exploiting you.” Perhaps he did know. The show describes itself as belonging to a society with a “chronic poverty of empathy” – perhaps the show was an exploration of how the lack of empathy this man felt for this woman halted his feminist ideals, and had him recapitulating the same imbalances he logically knows he opposes. The crisis of masculinity is – for some – related to a crisis of trying to be a good ally to women in a world where we can access “apocalyptically humiliating porn”, where misogyny is internalised, where there is still not a complete understanding between men and women.
I later discovered that Hawes is indeed aware of the ethical ambiguities of the piece, and was creating something about his “struggle to be a feminist”. I’m unsure if he wanted to inspire the level of rage my guest and I felt. In any case, I still disliked the show, and wondered at its programming. It demanded a lot of thought for a conclusion I’m already aware of – that people are complicated, can be hypocritical, that it’s hard to battle against societal influences. If shocking material is deployed for good use and interesting effect, it is worthwhile. But I gained very little from insights into the playwright’s self-pleasuring habits or any of his confessions. Two women on my row whooped and cheered at the close of the show, so perhaps my feelings do not represent those of all my fellow audience members, but ultimately the amount of mental energy this play demanded did not seem merited.
There is space for work about masculinity, and how this effects our discourse on feminism. But Hawes’ struggle is too idiosyncratic to represent masculinity in general and is not explored in a way that adds to discussions of the topic in a broader sense. Moreover, it’s not terribly interesting.
The Absolute Truth is on until 8th October 2016. Click here for more details.