As far as perceptive, poignant, urgent theatre goes, Love Me Now by Michelle Barnette is on the money. It’s less an exploration of modern relationships and more a biting dissection, one that pits male and female sexuality harshly against one another. As you might expect, the results are polarising.
Labelled as simply A, B and C, the play’s characters represent hyper-masculine sexual prowess and female promiscuity. The relationship between A (Alistair Toovey) and B (Helena Wilson) is electric, animalistic and poisonous. It is one based on casual sex: there is not an ounce of love and romance on display. A revels boyishly in sex: the way he proudly states he’s sleeping with six women, the way he begs for oral sex, the way he treats women like a sex toy.
But women are equally capable of owning their desires. Barnette is refreshingly frank with her depiction of female sexuality and, really, the play is about reclaiming that, about destroying the outdated virgin/whore dichotomy.
Further, it’s a play about reclaiming the word ‘no’. As the situation escalates between A and B, the whole notion of consent is buried beneath A’s aggressive desire. It makes for uncomfortable and haunting viewing, but the chemistry between Toovey and Wilson is palpable, with Wilson giving an especially visceral portrayal of B’s emotional conflicts.
Neither of these characters come out of this well. They are believably human and flawed, Barnette’s dialogue full of contemporary wit. A is pathetic and naïve, a boisterous depiction of toxic masculinity, but also sort of weirdly lovable and charming. B is vulnerable and sexy and intelligent and confusing. It makes for a biting satire of modern relationships, if perhaps overly cynical and hopeless. Will men and women ever truly understand one another?
With the introduction of C (Gianbruno Spena), Barnette’s tight drama unravels like the thread of neon red lights that cascade over the stage. Here is a different type of masculinity, one that’s just as disturbing. Initially charming, C is subtly manipulative, controlling and patronising – he literally silences B when he asks her to put her hand over her mouth. With this new plotline, the drama turns from an intimate magnifying glass on a single couple, to a widescreen battle of the sexes in which the men are given few redeeming features.
The play’s structure unravels in parallel. Scenes offer fragments that repeat, the two relationships overlapping with one another, a collision of truth and memory. It over-complicates the narrative and labours its point, building towards a climax of female empowerment that’s exhaustingly stretched out.
As Barnette’s debut play, Love Me Now is a daringly critical piece that’s politically charged and coiled with sexual tension. Her stripping away at the layers of sexuality is honest and astute, but its coldness leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Love Me Now is on until 14 April 2018 at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Click here for more details.