I nearly wrote this review like Mac’s letter to Chase Utley from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Bad idea. But even accepting I don’t know you, or to what extent you are and are not the writer-protagonist of your play Trainers or, The Brutal Unpleasant Atmosphere of This Most Disagreeable Season: A Theatrical Essay, it’s still you I want to address, for two reasons:
I’ve never reviewed a play by a trans man or transmasculine person before, and realising that threw me
The night after seeing Trainers I dreamt about my equivalent real-life person to Steven, in the play, who is not dead like him, just lost to me, and we both had mullets. I was (oddly) affected.
So: Sylvan Oswald, one way to structure an Exeunt review of your “theatrical essay” would obviously be as an essay, but what you say in Trainers is right: an essay can look like lots of things. You mention that ‘essayer’ in French is ‘to try’. This trying is pointed at you, because the show felt pointed at me for once, in its no-fuss transness and dumb romanticism.
“When I say I, I mean the writer,” you, or Nando Messias and Nicki Hobday, tell us. Your story strains the sorrowful silt out of Montaigne’s “romantic friendship” with his friend Étienne de La Boétie through a relationship in an alternative present. It’s post some second civil war, and gay people are, as ever, making pamphlets. “A subcommittee was outside smoking” speaks volumes. There’s a revolutionary one called Steven, who dies young like La Boétie, leaving you, like Montaigne, to keep living. And perhaps after this, you’re also trying to learn how to exercise, craving being told exactly how to improve yourself by hesitation-less personal trainers.
Hester Chillingworth’s springy production at the Gate goes against your stipulations for Trainers to be performed by one person or a racially- and gender-diverse ensemble of three to eight. What do you think about this starting transgression? Does this mean your rules have exceptions? Messias and Hobday are like friends and also the same person, falling over again and again.
Chillingworth works with designers Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby to fulfil your other recommendation – they divide up and make this outing of your text fully unique. The set looks exactly like that weird urban step-seating they have in some McDonald’s, and on it the jumble of stuff acquired over a short lifetime (carpets, a vase, a mostly complete bike, more than a couple of horse statuettes), used by the performers for visual punchlines, to underscore or illustrate.
Kuyck-Cohen and Gadsby are responsible for the nimble palette of the lighting too, for Trainers looking so tight and whole. Do you like sound-designer Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley’s magnifying of West Side Story’s ‘Somewhere’, which you reference? Their slowing and screwing with it reminded me of an autotuned version of that song which opens The Jungle Book (1967): ominous, something moving in the long grass.
When you meet Steven for the second time, you say “And there he was, kind of shining.” And while they say it, Hobday and Messias have put a jumper onto a swivel chair to be Steven, and they waggle its arms. And I loved the decision to embrace that there’s no way to convey the sacred shining of that maybe-fictitious moment, and so to gently undercut it.
My notes mainly document actions: slap push fighting hug collapse. Smash sleeping bag. Eat instant coffee. All these actions fill watching Trainers. In contrast, reading it is comparatively straightforward. It distances the audience from how abject you sound, maybe distracts; a much simpler production of your story would go slower sometimes, make the references to a horse accident make immediate sense, situate us more solidly in this world you insinuate. Despite the references to bodies and the working out we watch, themes of the body and training are pretty minimised. This production sweats abstract intent, but how do you want Trainers to make us feel?
I don’t know how I felt, and am divided on whether that’s accidental or useful or not. I’m still not sure what distinguishes a theatrical essay. Is it grief? Did Steven really shine? I don’t know if writer-you or Sylvan-you can answer, or if either or both of you are sure what to feel or what’s going to happen at the end, too. I guess I addressed this to you because I still have questions: these are not bad things to be left with.
TRAINERS is on at the Gate Theatre till 21st March. More info here.