by Laura Kressly
Theatre doesn’t need another all-white, all-male absurdist production ridiculing vulnerable people. Whilst fun in its staging and innovative in its storytelling, Flies lazily exploits cishet, male power dynamics in a Kafka-esque nightmare for fly-phobic Dennis whilst exploiting systemic, patriarchal structures to make him even more of a victim.
Dennis is the spitting image of Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors, but with an extra large dose of social awkwardness. He has a deeply entrenched phobia of flies that has ruined his quality of life, but the script mocks this rather than empathises. He refuses to leave his home for fear of encountering the creatures that he believes are out to get him. According to this story, that means he must be a weak person with low social status. He also cannot relate to women and effectively negotiate dating. These are two totally separate issues, but this show conflates them in the geeky Dennis – as if someone with severe mental health issues could not possibly be attractive, or sexually functional, or perfectly ‘normal’ in other aspects of his life.
The production’s strength lies in creating reality from Dennis’s perspective, with all its sonic and visual distortion. A few scenes with a therapist do little to engage with this psychological disorder because Dennis perceives him as a threat, and a flight is full of intimidating, cartoonish people. This includes a grotesque woman whose primary attribute as identified by Dennis is her obesity, despite her kindness to him. It’s an unpleasant reminder that men still sneer at women because of their bodies, despite his own shortcomings.
Though this show stimulates the senses and has some dynamic, dramaturgical devices that are surprising and innovative, the storytelling is troublesome. It paints mental health issues with broad strokes and belittles seriously debilitating conditions. There’s a lack of nuance in Dennis’s character that is worrying, and turning him into a source of amusement deserving of mockery is most concerning indeed.
Flies runs through 27 August.
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