Advertising is well practised at defending its own virtues. The heave and swell of the ‘free’ market is unpredictable and difficult to navigate as an individual. There are too many products and services out there. How are we as purchasers to make informed decisions, if we can’t tell at a glance which razor we’re buying has enough blades? How do we square our consciences if we aren’t certain a fair amount of pence is being channelled to the growers of our groceries?
We can consider advertisers as credulous and cynical in the same measure. They sincerely aim to manipulate our decisions for our own good. They are the grease in the axle. We are the axle. Advertising isn’t a valueless quantity, though. By supporting its subjects’ relationship to the exploitation of labour and the goods/services produced by it, it is reproducing the conditions of oppression. If we are a rod kept spinning by greasyslick advertising then of course the greater ‘machine’ is c a p i t a l i s m. Advertising cannot be benign because its premise within cApiTaLiSm is exploitation on a structural level.
Theatre is, like advertising, reliant on the recognition of signs and symbols. It is culpable when that recognition is through the reproduction of power dynamics. When, for example, a production chooses to re-represent images of women who are victims or sexualised without agency, it relies on structural misogyny already existing.
Kingdom does this with archival film depictions of screaming women and sexualised advertising images of women eating bananas. I’m not going to dwell on the arguments that could be made either way, but there are some below, for the interested.* Kingdom is least of all a show about women, which is probably for the best.
Kingdom is a theatre show about bananas. Bananas, according to Kingdom are the archetypal late-capitalist commodity. Some bloke building a railway back in the 19th century made the decision to combine advertising, shipping and trading into a single entity – creating an organisation which sold and propagandised bananas incredibly quickly and made a huge amount of money. And that’s not really what the show is about so it doesn’t matter that I’m sloppy on the details there.
The opening sequence of Kingdom takes the book of Genesis and re-diagnoses the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a banana. The banana is the dirty, sexy fruit of carnal knowledge, and so requires a dirty sexy rap about bananas and lust. The mode in which Kingdom begins is a place where seizure and re-appropriation is glorified, masculine and exploitative. This is a thread which carries through the piece. The banana as commodity is a symbol of masculine exploitation, requiring machinery, sexualised women, deforestation, women-as-victims, and conquest. The mission of 19thcentury capitalism is to carve industry (and capital) out of the rough wilds of the world; think Heart of Darkness and the argument with much currency that empire is/was a ‘civilising force’. Kingdom portrays an era where empires are fighting the notion of their own evil, by leaning on capitalist production and infrastructure as evidence of virtue. This will prove instrumental in the cultural gaslighting postcolonial nations are still subject to.
Though to be honest the show isn’t really ‘about’. The elements of story or history are necessary to give context to Kingdom’s depiction of masculinity. They make sense to be there, are interesting and add r e l e v a n c e but I think the whole show is gearing itself up to a different moment. I see Kingdom more as expressing itself in its modes of expression; the aesthetics of the piece are the part of it that matter.
The show is expressed through a lot of live video, which is very cleverly and smoothly executed, using green screens and well-placed cameras and tables to recreate the visual languages of television and YouTube advertising. There are sequences leaning on the cinematography of those films which take place in nonspecific rainforests, all filmed and projected live. There is a mix of polish and grease. There’s a nightclub-esque heat and sweat to the clean colours and repetitive music, coloured with King Kong groans and screams. There’s a lot of snogging onstage, while other stuff is happening. A couple of audience members laugh when two of the men snog each other.
The show ends with noise, or volume. The sort-of-timeline moves towards present day, through the invention of King Kong, and the repetition again and again in cinema of the giant, sexually aggressive gorilla. King Kong is a trope to lean on, a symbol of masculine power which keeps men going through the great depression, through multiple market crashes, as he is iterated upon again and again. And again, it doesn’t matter that it’s King Kong, because capitalism is about creating commodities out of reproduction: of images and of power relations. King Kong is still a useful image today because power relationships and anxieties are increasingly stagnant. The volume grows.
The show’s final, repeated image is the company and a group of paid local men posing and flexing topless, with strobes going off, with the music loud and punctuated by King Kong roars. I think about the laugh at the two men snogging. There were laughs, too, when one of the performers flexed on his own. It’s interesting to me how impotent the male body becomes under the eye of the audience. The men in the cast just look like any old cis gay man between the age of 25 and 40. These bodies are actually just a bit funny. The agency they have is the result of sound and fury and a platform (/money, see * below). But they’re not the thing to fear, or respect. By fitting into a definition of ‘men’, they lean on the system of signs which are implicit to that power relationship. They’re not King Kong – they are informed by him but their position is fragile and predicated on not deviating from the form of ‘men’.
Power is not gained, it is reproduced. Handed between people who look the same and occupy the same places, who like the same films and have the same faith in masculine power.
A digressive note on gendered power/depictions of women/finance:
*The theatre form already creates a critical context for everything onstage, so anything is fair game. It is lazy to simply say ‘all comment is critical’, the choice has been made to recreate the exploitation of women, and flagging that the company have done this is a necessary part of any ongoing feminist cultural conversation. It is patronising to assume that the audience aren’t capable of understanding this show’s use of ironic historical sexism. It is dangerous to let this sexism pass unchecked. Though the people onstage were all men, the AD is a woman and a large number of the technical team were women. The director is a man though and the gender breakdown of the cast is academic if the most powerful roles are held by men.
All the above is abstract, though. What we can also look at is the local male performers recruited for the show to appear in the final sequence. There were about nine of them and they were paid £90 per performance, which is £810 x 5 = £4050 that was paid to citizens of Manchester who were men and not women. So as well as presenting a critical look at masculinity’s symbiotic relationship with capitalism, Kingdom has financially rewarded a group of people for having male-presenting bodies. A deeper look into hiring short-notice local performers might reveal some interesting information about gender’s relationship to what people are expected and/or willing to be paid.
This is just a ‘review’ of one hour-long show though. Any criticism is incomplete without a look at the whole of a theatre’s programme. Going into the gender breakdown of HOME or the wider Manchester theatre scene’s payroll isn’t the job of a writer getting paid in review-by-review commissions.