Thursday, March 05, 2020

Masterpieces – an exploration of the pain, power and pleasure involved in pornography (Blacklight Productions at Smock Alley Theatre and Crescent Arts Centre)

Blacklight Productions have modernised and localised Sarah Daniels’ 1983 play Masterpieces in which she lays out a spectrum of male outrage, starting with telling misogynist jokes at one end and extending to the enjoyment of violent porn and snuff movies at the other. Other than some deliberately off-colour jokes near the start – which neither merited laughs nor received them in the Dublin show I attended – brace yourself for two hours 15 minutes of serious messaging without any satire to lighten the pressure.

Plays can often be used to unpick the complexity of an issue, confronting the audience with moral dilemmas and competing motivations that cannot easily be resolved. In the case of Masterpieces, the audience are faced with three men who are wholehearted and unapologetic consumers of all manner of porn, and three women who to varying degrees are willing to name the victims and call out a causal link between watching violent porn and becoming sexually violent.

Early on in the first act, a rowdy dinner party with three couples reveals the accelerant that will spark an eventual inferno, firing up Rowena to be on trial for a terrible action on a train platform. That some of the women can socially join with the men in telling rape jokes is an early indication of peer pressure and blurred lines of acceptable attitude and behaviour. With the ‘Rugby rape trial’ and the public sentiment around it still vivid in people’s memories, the Belfast run of Masterpieces will have an added frisson of revulsion on top of the understanding that #MeToo has awoken.

A social worker by day and maligned wife by night, Ellis O’Donnell plays Rowena with a growing determination. Her mother (Maureen Rabbitt) drinks heavily though it is only after the interval that we fully understand the pain she lives with. School friend Yvonne (Danii Byrne) is the first to voice concern at the sexual exploitation she witnesses boys ogling every day in school. Gemma Long plays a single mother, Irene, one of Rowena’s clients, creating the most gripping and empathetic performance of the piece with an early defensiveness that is coupled with a desire to change.

After the initial setup, Masterpieces settles down to a relatively undramatic sequence of one-on-one conversations and monologues directed out at the audience. Cast members uninvolved in a scene mostly remain on stage, sitting with their backs to the audience, though Cliodhna McAllister’s direction sometimes allows the women to watch and nod along sympathetically with other female characters.

Daniels writes her men as unrepentant and without any possibility of redemption. Playing Yvonne’s husband, Conrad Jones-Brangan towers over every woman who appears on his radar with a bullying and dismissive persona. “I’ve never raped anyone, I’ve never attacked a single woman” claims Rowena’s toxic partner (Aidan White) who is shallow, smarmy and wears a mocking Repeal t-shirt that sullies a cause he doesn’t pretend to understand. Meanwhile Eoin O’Sullivan slowly reveals the less than winsome traits of Rowena’s step-father. Síofra Brogan plays the judge and a number of other roles.

Other than a garden area to one side, the on-stage drama is conducted astride a three-level concrete cake structure which makes the actors look like polar bears in a zoo enclosure performing for the paying public. Ivy grips every structure, much like the abusive porn that is seen to pervade each character’s life.

Voxpops with the public admitting whether or not they use porn, and academics and workers talking about the impact of sexual violence on women bookend each act. These moments of realism only serve to underline the fantastical and somewhat forced nature of the some of the drama that might have been as effective with the mother/step-father couple removed.

Sporadically throughout the script, Daniels adds in minor characters and pockets of dialogue that try to unpack the reasons people give for excusing terrible behaviour. The most effective is a young mother who is trying to weigh up the love she feels for her teenage son with the anger she’d have felt if it had been her daughter he’d raped. Yet it’s as if simultaneously holding these two opposite emotions is being challenged as abnormal.

The video and unobtrusive soundscape work well, through the show’s lighting is uneven, sometimes leaving cast members speaking in the gloom as they walk around the set. Daniels’ cross-examination dialogue is salted with a good dose of fictional pretence that make old episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey seem like real-life court transcripts with cheeky back and forth jousting tolerated between Rowena, the judge and the prosecution lawyer.
“If they did to dogs what they do to women there would be a public outcry.”
If the play’s strength is its demolition of arguments against the harms underlying pornography, its weakness is that the production takes aim at so many different targets: men, legislation, courts, press barons, and sex shops. All are worthy of coming under the spotlight, but the width of field does blur the focus. And if there’s an accidental moral of the story, it’s that the three marriages at the heart of this anti-romcom play all demonstrate terrible choices that are worthy of much regret.

While there is much to critique and mull over, the unrelenting drive in Daniels’ writing, the ambition of Blacklight Productions to restage a play that split opinion back in the 1980s, coupled with the elaborate detailing of the set and some of the glimpses into other people’s lives make Masterpieces a novel if distressing trip to the theatre.

Masterpieces and its exploration of pain, power and pleasure runs nightly at the Smock Alley Theatre Dublin until Saturday 7 March and will be up in Crescent Arts Centre from Thursday 16 to Saturday 18 April.

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