The last time writer-director Anthony Neilson was at the Royal Court, with Unreachable in 2016, he created with his designer, Chloe Lamford, a brief but extraordinary final scene that shone new light on everything in the play that had preceded it. With The Prudes, he and designer Fly Davis pull a similar if simpler trick. The back wall of the set turns from soft pink to icy blue; a man reaches out his hand to the wife he’s failed to fuck for 14 months and four days, and says to her: “Thank you for loving me.” And then across his face flickers this sly, obnoxious expression of triumph at having gotten away with something. Again.
As with any satire, it would be easy to read The Prudes as a re-enactment of the very problem it’s claiming to satirise. There are so many moments in Jonjo O’Neill’s performance where the man comes across as almost sympathetic, where it’s possible that Neilson really wants his sense of crisis to be respected. That crisis is one of impotency: initially literal, but gradually unfolding as metaphorical, political, cultural – and, that final scene suggests, not actually existent.
But I’m racing ahead of myself: looking at the end, instead of the beginning. Let’s start with the name. To be a prude is to affect an attitude of extreme propriety or modesty, especially in sexual matters. To withhold favours, effectively. The kind of behaviour that incites incels to murder. Anyway. The word has been with us for a good 300 years, and is possibly a mutation of a French word meaning good, virtuous, modest. So it’s taking something positive and twisting it into negative. The way rapists do, for instance.
To be a prude is to affect an attitude of extreme propriety, especially in sexual matters – and especially in speech. But when something isn’t discussed, the potential for inequality, for exploitation, for harm, grows exponentially:
“Nowhere is our lack of practice at thinking about non-male biological realities more evident than when we talk about ‘bad sex’ … — specifically, the assumption that ‘bad sex’ means the same thing to men who have sex with women as it does to women who have sex with men. The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss ‘bad sex’ suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. … But when most women talk about ‘bad sex,’ they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain.”
That’s from an article in the Week by Lili Loofbourow, which goes on to look at how “our society’s scientific community has treated female dyspareunia — the severe physical pain some women experience during sex — vs. erectile dysfunction (which, while lamentable, is not painful)[.] PubMed has 393 clinical trials studying dyspareunia. Vaginismus? 10. Vulvodynia? 43. Erectile dysfunction? 1,954. That’s right: PubMed has almost five times as many clinical trials on male sexual pleasure as it has on female sexual pain.”
As Justine van der Leun points out, writing in the Guardian about pregnancy and her “incompetent” cervix, science codes disparity in its linguistics: “The ‘incompetent cervix’ joins a number of curious obstetric diagnoses: the ‘inhospitable uterus’, ‘hostile uterus’, ‘hostile cervical mucus’, ‘blighted ovum’. Meanwhile, men experience ‘premature ejaculation’ and not ‘inadequate testicles’; ‘erectile dysfunction’, but never a ‘futile penis’. They exhibit problems, but their anatomy is not defined as lacking.”
Such is the stratification of language over time, layers and layers of oppression, compressed, obdurate, making inequality, exploitation, harm seem like natural processes when they are not, they are not natural at all.
Jimmy Prude has been experiencing “erectile issues” for 14 months and four days. Only when it comes to sex with his wife, mind – masturbation there’s no problem at all. It’s a glorious expression of the self-absorption, disregard for the complexities of human relationships, and thus inadequacy hidden behind male power: as long as he’s getting what he wants, he literally doesn’t give a fuck. And because he’s a self-styled feminist – “No one hates the patriarchy more than me!” he bleats – he is careful to say that the issues in his marital sex life are his own fault, not hers.
Or rather, not his fault, but his pained emotional response to that self-absorption and inadequacy in others being revealed. The revelation, for instance, that men he might once have trusted fuck children: he’d rather you called him James, if that’s OK, since discovering the worst about Jimmy Savile. The revelation, for instance, that all the “rough stuff”, the sexual aggression, he grew up watching in mainstream movies, might actually have been “a bit creepy” and as such maybe he should be checking for consent before he indulges in it. The revelation, for instance, that “there’s virtually nothing I can’t respond to”, virtually nothing that won’t give him an erection. Except for the body of his wife.
As played by Sophie Russell, his wife Jess is flint striking steel; sparks fly off her, fire starters. She rages at the ways in which women are cultured into submission, greets Jimmy’s plaintive moans with derision, and occupies the voice of reason – not least in the quiet moment when she asks Jimmy whether her own story of abuse was his to tell. Not only tell but claim a victimhood within, soliciting sympathy in describing “how it affected me”. And again, the brilliant thing about Jimmy here – in Neilson’s writing, and in O’Neill’s flawless performance – is how close he comes to not being a parody at all. I know this man. I’ve heard him say exactly these things about his difficulty with masculinity, the ways in which, within patriarchy, men “are victims too you know”. It’s true: they are. But they’re also still the site of power – even if they don’t hold it personally, they hold it societally. And it’s that slippage Neilson sticks his hands into, right up to the elbows.
In the moment of watching The Prudes I thought it was clever, astute, the right side of everything. Not as funny as I wanted it to be, perhaps, but sufficiently nuanced to give plenty to think on. But the further I drift from it, the less sure I feel. I read Lyn Gardner’s negative review and instantly disagreed with her: there’s plenty about masturbation, porn, fantasy, consent, it’s just murky, choosing to suggest rather than say, and leaving plenty of space for interpretation. But one line of hers keeps ringing in my head: “Until pretty recently, most theatre was about men; one of the problems with The Prudes is that it is mostly all about Jimmy.” She’s right. It is.
And in a sense that’s fine. I really like Anthony Neilson – more than that: my review of Unreachable ended with me declaring I love him. Even as part of me wonders what a Royal Court season might look like if it didn’t so studiously maintain a gender balance, if the balance it sought instead were between women playwrights of different ethnicities, sexualities, ages, etc, I know such a season would require men like Neilson not being programmed. I don’t want that. Do I?
I think about that expression that flickers across O’Neill’s – Jimmy’s – face at the end of The Prudes. That brief revelation of triumph. Jess has tried to outmanoeuvre him, she’s even drugged him with viagra in an attempt to get him to have sex with her. Neilson’s joke is that she gives up: she has a headache. But Jimmy’s triumph is in maintaining the status quo. It’s sex on his terms, or not at all. Thank you for loving me, he says. I still love Anthony Neilson. But I wonder what that means I let him get away with.
The Prudes is on until 2 June 2018 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details.