THEATRE: How deep is their love?: Paul Taylor reviews Penetrator at the Royal Court

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The Independent Culture
Life is certainly no picnic for the teddy bears who feature in Anthony Neilson's Penetrator, newly transferred to the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs. As if they didn't have their paws full already (being forced to have sex not only with each other but also with male human beings), one of them is eventually held at knife-point by a maniac who threatens to give it him 'up the ass' if his owner doesn't confess to being a clandestine 'penetrator'. Teddy's slashed-out innards are soon, alas, cascading on to the carpet. By the end of the play, the stuffing has been knocked out of just about everybody.

Neilson's black comedy homes in on the sort of homophobia that is the warped product of repressed homosexual desire. The scene is a seriously squalid flat occupied by a pair of youngish, druggy, unemployed men: cynical, misogynistic Max (Mr Neilson) and Alan, his droll, peaceable, politically more correct sidekick (beautifully played by Alan Francis).

An atmosphere of sexual confusion is promoted without delay by the disconcerting preliminaries, which turn outto have elided an objective incident (we see a crop- haired squaddie trying to thumb a lift) with a story from a porn magazine heard in lurid voice-over (it concerns a heterosexual hitch- hiking adventure that veers into an inflated male fantasy of violent domination: 'I want you to shoot me, shoot me, shoot me'). Max is evidently brought to orgasm by the yarn, though the unexplained sight of the squaddie in the vicinity of this clammy daydream stirs doubts about the direction of the masturbator's desire.

The arrival at the flat of Tadge, an Awol soldier (played with a riveting mix of preoccupied intensity and touchy, glowering suspicion by James Cunningham), results in some exhilarating bad-taste lurches of tone in Neilson's entertaining, finely judged production, but it also has the effect of sensationalising the issue. Tadge, an old schoolfriend of Max, recounts a horrific story of escape from the army where, imprisoned in a darkened room, he has undergone, he claims, repeated and extreme abuse from a group known (and not for nothing) as the 'Penetrators.' He then claims to recognise from his voice that Alan was one of this bunch and holds him at knife-point.

Anyone who has experienced such gross sadism in the army may well object to the way the matter is handled here. In presenting it through the experience of a repressed homosexual (whose homophobia it confirms before he arrives at a measure of self-knowledge), the play converts a heinous violation of human rights

into a convenient psycho- dramatic metaphor. Indeed, given Tadge's half-deranged state and his final admission of the hitherto undeclared gay desire between him and Max, you can't be sure to what extent anything has actually happened to him. In a cheeky deflation of intensity, the play closes with the reunited pair sucking Rolos together as they did when they were lads, while the Bee Gees silkily croon 'How Deep Is Your Love?'. Let's hope, for their sake, it's deeper than the play.

'Penetrator' is playing at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, Sloane Square (071-730 2554)