new stages

'So why are these men all writing about men? Is it just they didn't notice there were no women in their plays?'
Click to follow
It's become known as testosterone theatre and there's a lot of it about: plays by blokes performed by blokes about blokish activities. So far the genre has included gambling (Dealer's Choice), rock 'n' roll (Mojo) and the army (Our Boys) and this week alone we can see boxers (Punch Junkies), night-watchmen (Violent Night), gangsters (Gangster No 1) and even table-tennis-playing cabbies (Not a Game for Boys) being given the theatrical once-over. Feminist theatre went through this single-sex phase back in the 1980s, but women playwrights are over that now and facing up to the greater challenge of writing about The World and both its sexes. It's tempting to think that this rush of boys' own drama is a timely unleashing of male self-scrutiny but, having watched the plays, I have my doubts.

So if there isn't a conscious gender agenda for these writers, why are they all writing about men? Is it just that they didn't notice there were no women in their plays? More likely, it's a commercial thing. In our post-Tarantino age, all that is mean, violent, ironic and fast-talking sells tickets. Most university-bred men with a gift for slick dialogue can turn it out and, while there's no reason why they shouldn't do so (though out-of-work actresses might disagree), it's just a shame that the male view of masculinity seems so limited and cliche-ridden.

The danger is that, intentionally or not, these plays end up romanticising the very mores they set out to lampoon. This, the critics agreed, was a problem with Louis Mellis and David Scinto's Gangster No 1 (Almeida), but is not the case with Richard Turner and Ken Price's Violent Night (Man in the Moon). In this story of an aggressive young night-watchman and his older, gentler counterpart, seen during the course of their first night together, the violence in both acting and script is palpable and ugly from the start. For much of the first half you have the feeling that you are merely watching the demonstration of a fact we already know - that the currency of most male exchanges is power and violence - but by the end the writers pull out of the bag an irony which is dramatically and intellectually satisfying.

Greg Hobbs's Punch Junkies (Brixton Shaw), by contrast, actively tries to counteract the myth of the glamour and acceptability of boxing. Although the play is dramatically clumsy at times and in need of judicious cutting, the effort is genuine and based on personal experience. Hobbs does bring women into the equation, but using one actress to play all the parts reduces the gesture to mere tokenism. And ultimately the play only illustrates what we already suspected: that boxing is a self-destructive sport in which the fighters are exploited and brutalised and the managers are corrupt and irresponsible.

Starting as slick, heartless and funny as you could hope, Simon Block's Not a Game for Boys (Royal Court) soon shows itself to have depth and heart. Using ping-pong as much as a metaphor as a backdrop for its three hapless protagonists, it reveals old Oscar as a "pusher", both in the game and in life, Eric as a "blocker", while young Tony, on whom the oldies rely to stay in the first division, is still a hitter and winner. Oscar and Eric both offer dismal role models for a young man: the former, a lonely old loser, the latter harried and harrying in a cloying marriage. While women are physically absent, constant reference to them means that they are more emotionally present here than in Punch Junkies. And while in the second half the drama descends into borderline sentimentality, it is heartening that the old stereotypes of male behaviour are being challenged.

Critics are often guilty of reading these fictional all-male worlds as microcosmic representations of society (many applauded Mojo's "mythic" quality). Somehow the same doesn't happen the other way around - Sue Glover's Bondagers at the Traverse in Edinburgh last month was critically acclaimed, but treated as a vision of a community of 19th-century women farm workers rather than a play about, say, the encroachment of the industrial revolution.

The writers don't make such grand claims for their plays. They pass up the opportunity to take the subject or the art form further, instead conforming to the vogue of violence. It takes a gay man, Lloyd Newson of DV8, to take that next step of the sexual revolution. His new piece, Enter Achilles, was researched in straight bars and clubs. "What men won't allow themselves to do, they won't tolerate in others," Newson told the Sunday papers. "Women have liberated themselves... but so few men are moving the same way. They just feel threatened and try to reassert their masculinity. But being 'a man' isn't half so critical as learning to be human."