In the middle of Manwatching, my thoughts turn to Tom Hiddleston’s bum. Sometime last year, I decided I was tired of looking at the toned, oiled arse cheeks of any male who’s acting career has accelerated to prime-time drama. An entirely gratuitous shot of manbum has shot up the TV trope league, and is now almost as prevalent as the female lead taking a shower for no particular reason other than to titillate. So, while watching an excruciating sex scene shot with the sole purpose of giving me good ole look at Hiddlesbum, I found myself more weary than excited. I texted a friend: I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for these boys, I say. I immediately realise, no, I don’t feel sorry for them, just embarrassed. And the reply came swiftly: stuff ’em, my friend said, we’ve barely got started. It’s not The Benny Hill Show. Or Loaded magazine. There’s so much more objectifying to do before the scales are balanced. I agreed, in principle. Bums it is.
But, do women even look at men the same way men look at women? It’s a hoary old question and one that, on the surface, Manwatching wants to ask. Does it turn us on? I tend to come down on the side of no, but the internet-melting reaction to Hiddlebum suggests I am wholeheartedly wrong. Or are those women performing a version of sexual-objectification based on the male one they’re so familiar with?
Either way, the question of women observing men for sexual pleasure is only the premise, and actually the least interesting thing about Manwatching. Yes, it hints that women are as varied, complicated, shallow and insane in term of what gets their motors running as the other half of the population. Lots of giggling aside, I’m not sure that is much of a revelation to the women in the audience, or the wider female population. If the authorial anonymity has you expecting super-seedy revelations, you’ll be disappointed.
But that’s not to say going to see Manwatching isn’t fascinating. It is, because, although none of this is news to the women in the audience, it might still be headline grabbing for some menfolk, including the one delivering it. Our anonymous author has stepped away from the limelight not because of shame, but to open up her words more completely to interpretation – male interpretation. This is where it gets interesting: a woman watching a man chewing, sight unseen, on this entirely subjective version of female sexuality. While there might not be brilliance in the text, there is in the performance of it. This isn’t a show about female sexuality at all, it’s about men. Or, rather, one man exposed under the theatrical microscope. The real manwatching in Manwatching takes place in the theatre.
There’s genius in having chosen comedians, too, rather than straight actors. There’s something so needy and narcissistic about them. In the same way I feel embarrassed for Hiddleston baring his bum for pseudo-arty ends, I feel weirdly sorry for comedians who plunder their life and emotions in a bid to fill some void with strangers’ laughter. And they, consciously and unconsciously, reveal so much about who they are in doing so, and it’s not always Mr Nice Guy. No, an actor wouldn’t do.
Our comedian’s delivery – the micro-gestures, the fumbling embarrassment – that’s the interesting stuff. For the record, I saw the rather adorable Arthur Smith, who was articulate, intelligent, awkward at the right points and suitably self-effacing. After an hour-plus of manwatching, he exposed himself as an okay sort of guy, who probably thinks women are equal to men, aren’t whores for liking sex and discussing it, and doesn’t go around forcing himself on them left, right and centre. As a result, the whole experience was warm, fuzzy and fun, but it’s not hard to imagine the mood shifting to something darker had he ‘failed’ and revealed a latent prejudice or misogyny with an ill-timed snort or eye roll. By the end, I was, indeed, longing for the frisson of a failed male feminist, but Mr Smith passed with flying colours even when the monologue gets a bit didactic and pedestrian.
A quick scan of the list of performers reveals a probably liberal, likeable bunch of fellas lined up (I mean, who else would agree?). But I can’t help clamouring to hear the words fall from the mouth of someone who might struggle more with them. Now that would be exciting – dangerous, even – and I can think of several panel-show stalking white men I’d love to give the Manwatching treatment.
Manwatching is on at the Royal Court until 20th May 2017. Click here for more details.