by Laura Kressly
Toxic masculinity is entrenched in contemporary life, from wider political and social systems to the minutiae of our daily interactions. It doesn’t just harm women; it also broadly shapes men and boys’ relationships with each other. One way this manifests is through displays of overt heterosexuality and other stereotypically masculine behaviour particularly in places like schools, where teenage boys constantly scuffle for power and try to fit in. Any new students need to quickly find their place in the hierarchy, preferably near the top. However, those who are already there sense their position is precarious so they bully anyone that could be perceived as a threat. Darren is one such lad who senses weakness in the quiet and bookish Mark who just joined their year 10 cohort, but Darren also senses something in himself that he believes must be kept in check.
This two-hander by Sophie Swithinbank distills the complex and precarious power plays of secondary school into the relationship between these two boys. In addition to the bully/bullied dynamic, Swithinbank requires these characters to navigate social class disparity, domestic abuse and closeted homosexuality. The end result is a pair of complex and troubled teenagers who are incapable of dealing with their own feelings and each other. Their emotional immaturity, and mix of fear, desire and self-loathing, in turn leads to a series of increasingly horrific events with long-term consequences (do check the content warnings, as some of these are violently explicit). The majority of the play is told though flashbacks, so the effects of Darren and Mark’s year 10 relationship four years later are not withheld. This is a potent counterargument to ‘boys will be boys’ and the idea that bullying is trite, inconsequential and somehow builds character.
A large, industrial-looking seesaw takes up most of the stage space, with the audience on either side. This is a clever physical manifestation of the power play in the boys’ relationship designed by Natalie Johnson. This child’s playground toy in reconfigured into something huge and scary. Darren may seem like he often controls Mark, but his feelings for Mark are very much not something he has a handle on so his actions become increasingly erratic and gives Mark an opportunity to attempt to diffuse Darren’s volatility. Direction by Matthew Iliffe reflects this in the staging, where the characters battle for their own balance and to destabilise the other on the large, grey plinth.
Corey Montague-Sholay (Mark) and William Robinson (Darren) excel at embodying these fragile young people who develop a dangerous, interdependent relationship. They show that whilst young people are doing a lot of great, progressive work around sexuality, there’s still a lot to do to keep our young people safe and well in this heteropatriarchal society.
Bacon runs through 2 April.
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