Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
‘Monster’ was on this reviewer’s list of priority shows to try and see during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, intrigued as I was by its promise to explore the topic of masculinity, the title alone suggesting the play would examine the subject’s more toxic qualities. It certainly does, and one startling scene in particular late into the piece will catch audiences completely off-guard.
In a climate where views and outlooks that we thought were rightly being confined to the dustbin of history are depressingly being given greater legitimacy again by the painful need to project a macho image of one Donald J Trump (and not forgetting the regressive societal views of his Russian counterpart), and in a world where mental health issues and rates of suicide among young men who don’t feel able to ‘man up’, the idea of masculinity, its nature, and its role in society, feels like a more urgent discussion to have than ever before. Writer and actor Joe Sellman-Leava takes this on with gusto, channeling an edgy, uncertain, often dangerous energy into an hour of theatre, and crafting a character (or, more accurately, a series of characters) that we are never quite sure how safe we ought to feel around.
The central character, a young actor living with his girlfriend, and cast in a Shakespeare play, at first seems amiable enough, friendly, unassuming, even a bit shy, as he displays evident discomfort at the prospect of portraying some of the darker moments of the piece, which require him to physically intimidate and, within the play, eventually assault his female co-star. He crafts a portrait of a well-meaning young man suddenly out of his depth trying to inhabit a vicious character, and being put under increasing pressure by his director to lose his inhibitions. Meanwhile, Sellman-Leava slips with almost chilling ease into the mindset of the in-story role, speaking of women with utter dismissiveness and disdain, leaving us in no doubt that the character views the female sex as men’s playthings, and lesser beings. ‘Monster’ divides much of its time between this dark in-story part, and the actor’s growing trouble connecting with his partner, whose feminist views begin to challenge him almost to the point of provocation. As the play progresses, the worry grows in the audience’s mind that she will ultimately push him too far, and sure enough, events eventually come to a head- but with what results will be left unspoiled by this reviewer.
Elsewhere, to further explore the idea of masculinity and what it entails, Sellman-Leava gives us recurring mini-monologues in the style of the sources the actor is looking to for inspiration on YouTube, and rather brilliantly goes into the characters of Patrick Stewart and Mike Tyson, the former relaying his experiences of trying not to let his father, who badly mistreated his mother, serve as an example of a male role model, and the latter trying to justify his all-too-well-known view of women. Sellman-Leava’s portrait of these two personalities is uncanny, easily one of the best things about the piece. His Stewart accent is superb, and his Tyson leaves you feeling the infamous sportsman is in the room. It’s brilliant stuff.
One arguable downside to slipping between these different personas, however, as good as they are individually, is that the play can sometimes take on a disjointed feel- something that may well also be the result of its having undergone numerous rewrites whilst in development, having originally begun life as a much shorter piece in 2009. At times, particularly if an audience isn’t paying absolute attention, it’s possible to get a little lost as to who we’re currently with, the shifts, in particular, between the actor and his in-story role occasionally taking a moment to properly follow. It might be worth finding a way to signal these switches in character a little more seamlessly in any future rewrites. Generally, the story-within-a-story approach works in the piece’s favour. From time to time, though, this reviewer would argue, it doesn’t quite work. None of this, it should be noted, is the fault of Sellman-Leava as an actor. He’s excellent, a force of nature at times, and a performer this reviewer is keen to see more of in future productions.
The piece enjoys some great direction by Yaz Al-Shaater, Sellman-Leava’s character managing to draw us into the different worlds of theatre studios, Shakespearean castles, and boxing rings with the support of some great lighting work by Sam Hollis-Pack, and well-placed props- one use of a glass of water makes for an extraordinary moment of acting. Meanwhile, the moment alluded to at the start of this review, involving a chair, is a simultaneously startling, compelling and horrifying moment of theatre, and likely to be the image that most stays with audiences long after the final bow.
I suggested in my previous review that one-man shows aren’t usually my theatre of choice. Following on the heels of ‘Venus and Adonis’, this further example of its genre as part of this reviewer’s 2017 Fringe, has done a substantial amount to make me re-evaluate things. It’s raw, energetic, passionate stuff, and worth seeing not just by men, but audiences of all kinds.