Coming All Over The Keyboard
A husband is caught, pants around ankles, face lit up by laptop and arm pumping. A wife flees the family home, porn actors recollect glorious pasts while popping Viagra. Saturated by sex, the characters stumble from one empty encounter to another, naive then jaded, frustrated, never able to come enough times, never able to connect
My fondness for more extreme performance – dance without choreography, theatre without a script – inevitably leads me to questions about “what is art?” For most people, fifteen minutes of looped guitar at full volume, movement vocabularies based on the shudders of mental health patients and an overweight naked man on a swing would be pushing the category pretty hard, while my frustration at the latest interpretation of Shakespeare would appear wilful.
Instead, I sidestep the question and reply: “what is art for?” For me, it is about change, an experience that invites a transformation in consciousness, a shift of opinion. The techniques of the stage – lighting, quality of acting, direction, the shifty interpretation – are tools to that end, and their value is not in their intrinsic worth but how far they engineer a point of emotional contact between me and the performance.
It’s a version of the old Marxist blurb of putting performance into social context, only avoiding political generalisations by insisting on a hugely egotistical perspective. Being a post-modernist, I would not dare speak for anyone else.
Since my tastes extend into the bloody-minded and difficult, they are in more than usual need of justification. It isn’t too hard to explain my support for on-stage nudity, because I don’t seem to be getting much off stage. However, encouraging audiences to subject themselves to live bloodshed, eight hour endurance cycles and dancers hurling lumps of concrete at each other can be problematic.
And so, The Zeroes Keep Coming. The second show from Flatrate, a genuine grass-roots company who have been taking over the Thirteenth Note once a month with an open night and debuted with British brutalist Mark Ravenhill. This time, it’s hardcore.
The TV screen at the centre traps a loop from internet porn, a flickering image of cock and cunt, eternally thrusting without release, the close up so tight that the bodily parts blur into vicious eternal geometry. Two parallel dramas played out around it: the inarticulate despair of the porn industry, and a marital breakdown precipitated by the husband’s use of YouPorn.
Characters alternate between inarticulate introspection and angry complaint: casual seduction is exposed as game-playing, while eroticism is ugly, coarse. Pornography might be a symptom, but the malaise runs deeper. Communication fails, real feeling is replaced by fantasy and obsession.
At no point was Zeroes titillating. The wretchedness of the porn actors balances the couple’s quiet desperation, unevenly leading to a showdown. In the play’s most trenchant scene, the wife launches a diatribe against a panel of porn stars. She points out that the glamour of erotica is a false consciousness, that its easy availability stifles intimacy in relationships. The assembled studs and sluts shrug, uncomprehending.
Finally, she leaves her husband, feeling betrayed, only to return, filled with hope. She finds him masturbating over his laptop. Black out.
This final image is a problem. Getting caught with your shreddies around your ankles in the pale flickering light of the screen has as much comic potential as tragic. Although pornography is clearly depicted as a loveless exchange of fantasy and disinterested bodily fluids, and the wife clearly articulates her objections, it never quite feels shocking enough. At a fundamental level, the play is dealing with the loss of intimacy and innocence. This powerful force of human connection only gets a few scenes, that are twee and comic. It appears too weak, and its defeat is inevitable.
Director and writer Stephen Redman isn’t afraid to confront big issues, and be relentlessly honest in his depiction of internet porn addiction. At this point, it’s easy to wheel out the studies that prove how damaging internet porn is. More pointedly, how did I end up here, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, fast-forwarding erotic hieroglyphs I could never imagine and desperately seeking that single moment where the models kiss, a rare moment of missing intimacy?
The web has seen a quantum leap in the ease of availability and extremity of erotic images, but is that any more than an extension of a culture obsessed with immediate satisfaction, those cum-shot compilations merely another snapshot of desire’s gratification, on credit terms that lead to debt?
Theatrically, the structure is uneven, the characters and arguments are two dimensional: the usual price for such a clear, polemical script. It’s more exciting that Flatrate want to take on issues like this, aren’t afraid of scaring audiences and are willing to put personal feelings on stage, in all their ugliness. It’s limited by the conventions of theatre – it’s always clear that these are actors and anyone with a broadband connection won’t really be shocked. But it is an exciting submission by a company who have the vision and scope to offer a future greatness.