Cycling home through Victoria park, a lone path ahead of me with open grass on either side. I let impulse take me and pedal faster and faster until I am flying. The fading light tints my skin with a warm glow, and the cold wind arouses tears, though they may be a lingering effect from the show. Perhaps they’re both. I feel rebellious, virile, free.
The impact of Ponyboy Curtis’s vs. lingers long after the trip home, but its initial effect is telling. Somehow it makes its way inside you of and sits in your stomach like a rousing creature. More than anything, it champions impulse.
Formally, vs. is not much more than play. It’s a series of repetitive vignettes that are similar to games, with six young men making contact (however intimate) with each other. They begin by spinning a bottle inside a circle of men’s clothes, and an invasive droning noise slides up, semitone by semitone. After a communal cry, the soundtrack transitions to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which seems a touch too quiet), and vs. adopts the ballet’s themes of celebration and ritual to try and find an appropriate space or register for male relationships.
Part of the intrigue is trying to decipher the code behind the games and realising that as soon as it seems cracked, it changes. The inner logic becomes at once clear and muddled as the rules flaunt themselves as irregular. They bend and curl at the whim of the participants. The piece adapts and adjusts in no reasoned order. That makes sense: if anything, Ponyboy Curtis is simulating a living, breathing, contradictory thing.
And that’s constructive for the Ponyboy agenda: to follow impulses, whether raunchy or romantic, in an effort to enact a space of queer utopia. The title vs. doesn’t just signal opposition, but also the work’s defiant approach to creating communion. No language is used here, except for sporadic voiceovers, somewhat unnecessary, that suggest the shortcomings of text. Director Chris Goode plays with contrast and opponents: a pseudo-boxing match evolves into an intense makeout session, horseplay becomes foreplay. The lights shift starkly from ashy grey to warm gold. While there is a competitive element, winning is never the main objective; instead it’s to find a freedom with and in each other.
The performers do everything with blind commitment. They strip off items of clothing to put others on, they weave through each other like mesh. And yes, they are naked a lot of the time. But while it isn’t the work’s most outstanding feature, it’s also not just gratuitous. It celebrates a relative diversity of male bodies – though predominantly all white – while reconfiguring their meaning onstage.
However, the origin of some impulses is at times questionable. Although not exhaustively, they do veer towards sex. Of course these drives are important to emphasize in a world where they are suppressed, particularly in public places, but the heady sex of Ponyboy Curtis has an excess that looms and overshadows other things. It’s no bad thing, necessarily, but it does raise some questions about voyeurism.
For a devised work that requires a vulnerability from its performers, the power dynamic between observer and performer feels skewed. Lookers-on are not required to forfeit any part of themselves; they are, in this case, the outsiders. Goode’s power position, as both part of the devising process but absent from the final product, is also worth considering. While one of the crueler sequences depicts a sort of voyeurism, it doesn’t fully thrust its implications back onto us as audience. Given the sometimes sexualized content, the danger is a fetishizing of, or at the very least a reductive fascination with, the young male body. So the power imbalance is an important one, as it affects the ways in which bodies are interpreted onstage, part of Ponyboy’s mission. More could be done to at least underline such a power dynamic if not to take steps to shift it.
It also limits other avenues that could be explored: the dullness that sometimes stems from game play, or the fact that bodies can sometimes be boring, or even funny. Humour can be deeply intimate but it’s generally lacking in this performative utopia – and that curbs the otherwise beautiful companionship between performers.
The most stunning affective moment comes at the end, where a simple race to the front of the audience turns into an activity in binding – rushing forward they lift each other, they call on each other, they hold each other. It’s a chemical reaction, deeply moving, that fuses together new, profound bonds. What Ponyboy Curtis do and are trying to do is no small undertaking, and there is a deep-seated current in the work that is hard to articulate through language. It’s atomic, risky, and uncertain, but it is undoubtedly felt and felt deeply.
Vs is on at The Yard Theatre until 6 – 17 June 2017. Click here for more details.