So much ink has been spilled on masculinity. It’s toxic. It’s in crisis. It’s so fragile. It’s a prison. But, perversely, it’s also almost impossible to write about, staining the hands of people who try with clichés and anecdotes. RashDash’s performance is nominally about masculinity. But its scratchy sketch takes in femininity, too, prickling with drafts of ideas and abandoned theses. Gender’s not a theme for absolutes.
Admittedly, their opener has a pretty good try. Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen dress as intergalatic space goddesses, cloaked in gold Lamé and screaming a summary of two thousand years of gender relationships into microphones, like Star Trek villains pronouncing their verdicts in a fearsome space age court.
They proclaim that scientists and social historians are in agreement: men and women were equal in hunter gatherer societies, but the arrival of farming brought ideas of power of animals, social hierarchies, and a need to control women’s sexual morality. But what happens next is a little harder to summarise. It’s lived history, too lived-in for distance.
So RashDash alternate two strategies. One is riotous, and vivid: a series of witty but blunt explorations of how gender feels. There are beautiful vocal harmonies and tough glam punk anthems. They run around half-naked, astonishingly strong and miles away from staid pin-ups. Then Goalen mocks our own gendered preconceptions by stepping up onto a literal pedestal, morphing from Classical David to Marilyn Monroe with just a simper and a hip flick.
The other is sombre and grey. Scenes that feel like they’ve been ripped straight from a piece of new writing staged unfussily in a black box somewhere, by an author schooled in naturalism tell the story of two brothers, caring for their Dad as he slips deeper into senility. All the clichés of male stoicism, inability to express emotion, intergenerational incomprehension are here. And a ridiculous game of Cards Against Humanity, too.
RashDash started experimenting with drama in We Want You To Watch, a furious take-down of the pornography industry. Four playlets offered perspectives on the industry: which were widely criticised for offering an unnuanced view, defined by utopian fantasies where the Queen banned porn. But then, making political theatre leaves theatremakers vulnerable. A strong driving narrative and they’ll be accused of agit-prop. An abstract or elliptical approach will be accused of skirting the issues involved.
Two Man Show does both. And then destabilises even this unequal gender binary with a pair of monologues. Greenland wants to stay in character as a man. Goalen prances round in pink silk: she explains that there aren’t words that say what she wants to say. Then she suggests that words are a patriarchal construct, loaded towards men.
It’s an argument that made my blood boil – not least because so much research has shown that women are the guardians of oral culture, and the originators of a disproportionately high number of new words. But then, it’s meant to. It feels like a dig at everyone who criticised We Want You To Watch for being too weird, too brash, too opinionated – who wanted a nuanced broadsheet editorial of a show, not a furious visual flood. RashDash are deliberately infuriating, like toddlers in pink princess dresses who’ll still bang away at their toy drumkits.
And the result may be hilarious, liberating, and beautiful. But it’s not a piece that holds your hand, this one. It sits with you, its jagged, ill-fitting contents refusing to settle down into something more portable, more digestible.
But its eventual message, for me, feels clear. Gender is something we perform, however natural it feels. It’s unfair. It’s liberating and imprisoning at once. And whatever RashDash’s two twinned philosophies seem to suggest, we can’t opt out, shrug off its confines in a sloppy t-shirt or try to float above it in an ethereal pink kimono.