'What's Love Got to Do With It?' Two productions look sex as commodity

COMUS by John Milton Shakespeare’s Globe 2 November, 2016 SHOPPING AND F**KING by Mark Ravenhill Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 4 November, 2016

Carnal forces are at work in two separate theatre pieces, written over 350 years apart, and onstage this fall in London: 'Comus, A Masque in Honour of Chastity' (written by John Milton in 1634), and 'Shopping and F**king' (Mark Ravenhill, 1996). In excellent productions, both look at the different prisms through which we view sexual desire – as appetite, as trial, as commodity, and as power (both exchanged and withheld).

‘Comus, A Masque in Honour of Chastity' is a rare opportunity to experience a court masque, a form of elegiac theatrical presentation popular in the courts of James I through to Charles I (1606-1640), often very lavish and featuring members of the court both onstage and in the audience. Written by poet John Milton, ‘Comus' was commissioned to celebrate the inauguration of John Egerton as the Lord Lieutenant of Wales. As an entertainment, the court masque was create to achieve many things: it elevated its audience with an educational and elegiac message on morals or ideals; it was an eye-popping theatrical event; it displayed the wealth of the court noble who staged the show; and it served to impress political guests both being performed for court notables, and fawning on them. Since a masque featured members of the court in roles onstage (sometimes singing and dancing as well), it literally put a social order on display before kings and courtiers. In ‘Comus,’ a sister and her two brothers are lost in a wild wood, where the young woman is separated from her guardians, and lured into the den of Comus, a satyr and libertine, who is set on corrupting her with the assistance wine and (very poetic) argument. The young Alice is bound to a couch and subjected to a trial of her chastity. Surviving this virgo in tacta, she is freed with assistance from a sacred spirit, Sabrina, a water nymph. It is sobering to realize that the central roles in this 800 line epic poem about virginity challenged were first performed by the Lord Lieutenant’s daughter ( aged 16) along with her brothers (aged 9 and 11), and presented at a public festival funded by the Lord Lieutenant, John Egerton. It is probable that the allegory on chastity was meant to both impress the audience with the family’s morality, and to show off the marriageable young daughter.

The production at Shakespeare’s Globe (in the glorious Wanamaker Theatre), uses this historical fact to create a framing device for the current production, which starts as a ‘final rehearsal’ for the presentation, segues into the 1634 performance itself, then morphs into the world of the play, stripping away the framing device elements by a ‘through the looking glass’ theatrical effect. This self-aware framing allows the production to not only make the audience aware of the position of the young performers, it allows for the young Alice to have a mindset and awareness of her own about her role in being presented as a virtuous (and valuable) young woman, and to voice her own objections to both the nature of the play and the presentation. It also allows for the production to set up a raucous and humorous tone, and the production is VERY funny. While Milton’s original verse is beautifully and honesty presented, we are able to view the 17th century mores (and treatment of women) through a modern lens. This allows the production to be even more immediately accessible, and removes the distances of time and culture. World of Comus and his followers remains dangerous and debauched, but it also seems, well…fun. We may laugh at the innocence of the bumbling brothers as they pick their way through a lecherous forest (literally alive with rutting trees and boulders in a landscape brought to life by the cast), but we also envy them for the clarity of their ideals. Similarly, as the aggrieved Alice challenges Comus in his den, it is the clarity and passion of her arguments which transcends the ridiculousness of ‘sticky chair’ in which she is imprisoned. The battle for Chastity becomes not a battle of bodies (as Comus assumes), but of minds. Alice’s triumph is a triumph of her integrity and personal strength: this ‘Masque in Honour of Chastity’ shows itself to be in honour of personal strength in all forms. It is no surprise then when the young Alice, in the final moments of the production, recognizes her own status as commodity, and stands up to her father to determine her own fate, a closing bracket to the framing device. The addition, while modern, rings true to the integrity Alice has displayed in her forbearance.

In ‘Shopping and F**king’ by Mark Ravenhill, sex and intimacy are again caught up in perspectives of commodification, this time seen from the drug infused world of the 1990’s club scene. The excitement of consuming, whether sex or designer labels, is at the center of the play. Part fantasy, part comedy, part satire, and part vicious tragedy, ‘Shopping and F**king’ distills down every transaction (interpersonal or commercial) into consumption, to reveal that in a consumer driven society, money trumps all.

Mark, a recovering addict, decides to manage an addition to sex in the same way he managed his addiction to drugs. He disconnects himself, and looks to only engage in sex as a transaction, paying for it to avoid any emotional connection. While ha has a young couple he has ‘bought,’ Lulu and Robbie, they no longer amuse him, and so he releases them. To find new ways to survive, Lulu, an actress, becomes involved in porn, Robbie begins to sell drugs – and so all three become engaged in appetites as consumer transactions, whether it is prostitution, porn, or drugs. As a drug dealer, Robbie gives away his product, becoming excited by the attention paid to him by men looking for a tab. When he comes up short and has to pay off the murderous dealer, Bryan, he and Lulu take to being phone sex operators in order to raise whatever money they can. Meanwhile, Mark becomes obsessed with a young boy prostitute, Gary, who goads him into fulfilling every urge, from sex to shopping. When the sex and shopping are not fulfilling enough, Gary pushes Mark to make their connection real through the only other realities in this world aside from Money: Pain and Death.

The production at the Lyric Hammersmith makes the most of driving, unrelenting, and cynical nature of the play. The scenes morph one into another in front of an ever-changing green screen, and this fluidity allows the play to crackle along, highlighting the fantasy elements in porn and drug-induced states. All reality on stage becomes fantasy, and all of the characters trade on those fantasies in order to thrive (including the dealer, Bryan, himself a sort of motivational speaker, trading on the hopes of others in order to own and con them). Early in the play, Lulu and Robbie Mark to recount how they met. Mark tells the ‘Shopping Story,’ a litany about buying them from a man to whom they were connected. Whether the story is reality is unclear- but the story excites them, even as it gives order. Money is concrete in this world, and without its exchange, everything is fantasy. Cash in hand (itself a representation of a vague and indefinable concept, Value) is reality.

What gives the play emotional impact is the vacuum created by this overwhelming consumption: Love. Each of the characters is supplanting a need for connection (and yes, Love) with appetite, and when Mark begins to form a connection more real with Gary – Gary sidesteps the emotion by turning the admission of Love into a power game. In a commercial transaction of intimacy, an emotional connection can only be viewed as weakness, and giving into it violates the first law of dealing: ‘He who deals shall not use.’ Love is traded under the confusion of sex, intimacy, appetite, and power: the ‘hit’ each of the users is looking for. Though written in 1996, and before the current world of online connection, ‘Shopping and F**king’ has a very modern day feel. This new world, where everything can be commodified, turns more and more of our lives into markets. Our very connections to one another- from pictures, to shopping habits, to viewing records – are mined for information on how we consume, an how that defines what we love. Mark Ravenhill’s darkly comic play is a cynical look into a world where we are all of us looking to spell ‘Love,’ and using all the wrong letters.

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