Manwatching @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Oh Captain My Captain

I’d never been up to the Royal Court Upstairs space before this year. Now I’m obsessed. I want to see everything there. It’s such a fluid space, and for this the audience is literally stacked against the performer, he’s under interrogation. Which is only appropriate.

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I thought a lot about whether it was worth writing about Manwatching. Not because it wasn’t worth my time, or that it wasn’t any good – far from it. It’s brilliant. But it’s so specifically about one night, one man, that writing about it feels like an act of betrayal. Even by writing about it I’m potentially jeopardising part of its intent, ideally, no one in the room would have a clue what’s coming. But sod it. Every night is unique, so whatever I tell you, it will still be different tonight, and tomorrow.

An unprepared man walks onto the stage, and introduces himself to the audience. His name is Mark Thomas. We nod in acknowledgment. He wears a ‘sashay away’ shirt. This makes me smirk. He quickly describes what is about to happen. The stage manager, Charlotte, activates the printer, which proceeds to churn out the script. Mark gets a woman on the front row to take his picture with the printer. He attempts to take one of the audience – except he’s out of time, the script has printed. He puts on his glasses, glances at the first page, and begins to talk.

Manwatching is a monologue, written by a female playwright who has chosen to remain anonymous, something she chooses to address in the piece. Having it sight read by a different male comedian each night is certainly a gimmick, but it’s a great gimmick. It so effortlessly inverts the traditional heterosexual power dynamic, relying totally on this man’s trust in an idea. And we, as an audience, go into the space knowing this. There’s at least some part of us that’s hoping to see someone get embarrassed. In fact, particularly as a man, there’s something vaguely self-flagellant about being an audience member in the first place, and probably in agreeing to read it out as a performer.

And let me just say – gimmick aside – the text is really good. Really good. Brutally honest, linguistically so clear, and shot through with hilarious and cringe inducing passages, including anecdotes about giving bad head in a bathroom and wet-dreaming about a half-lion, French, Andy Samberg-lookalike. It’s the kind of text that is funny however its done, a thesis I tested with my housemates later that night, as the script (only available after the show to minimise spoilers) was passed around and we each read sections from the text. It works because all it needs is the unknown, a sense of risk, someone willing to potentially humiliate themselves.

When you put it like that, it sounds cruel. Like, let’s put a dude onstage, pull his pants down, and laugh at him. Except its nothing like that at all. The audience is warm, not hostile. This is so important, because as brilliant as the text is, it’s only an ingredient in this experience. The audience cannot be malicious, because if it is, then the whole thing falls apart. Thomas, a particularly political comedian, appears largely unfazed by the text, by which I mean he is never made visibly uncomfortable (at least to my collection.) When he does momentarily fluster, it’s because he’s stumbled on a line, and not the lines that might embarrass the reader (looking at you, “set of hanging enamel spoons.”) But he is unafraid to go back over a line, to give a better reading – not necessarily to get a bigger laugh but to just give it greater clarity. I can’t see this happening with an audience baying for blood.

Occasionally, he does throw a line at the audience, once in response to the text “that’s fucking brilliant,” and once in response to the audience “I love that you’re nodding.” And then there’s a bit at the end that I won’t spoil because it’s brilliant but he actually had to stop because he was laughing so hard.

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I was thinking about whether this piece is feminist, or whether it was sort of ‘politely’ feminist where the piece thinks it’s more feminist than it actually is. It’s definitely feminist (I’m aware of the ironies of a dude making this claim.) Laura Mulvey wrote about how in narrative it is the man who is active and the woman passive, and how for a woman to be considered active she must adopt masculine traits. Manwatching totally subverts this. It is absolutely the female voice that is active, in the text it is always about the woman, and the man – interchangeable, unprepared, suspended in tension – is rendered passive in a theatrical space where he is traditionally privileged.

The liveness ignites this; as great fun as Manwatching is to read amongst friends (the Anonymous Woman suggests it as a quirky option for a first date) it relies on an audience that doesn’t know each other. There’s less collective hostility, and a palpable sense of excitement even. Certainly, the women in the audience were cackling away, in recognition, in approval, I don’t know. There were absolutely moments I winced at – the first couple of minutes, in particular.

Manwatching is a brilliantly funny, sharply political monologue in a purely theatrical form. I loved it. I’d love to see it again, but I’m not sure how that would work. It should be a singular experience for everyone, I think.

SEE IT. IT’S GOING TO BE IN EDINBURGH.

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