Breaking The Fourth Wall

Manwatching, Royal Court Theatre – Review

The comedians who took part in Manwatching during its run

“The sexy brain wants what it wants.” – Anonymous

Sigmund Freud may have started the ball rolling with trying to ascertain the female mind, but it’s fair to say that as a man, there were many things that he could never be privy to. In 1996, the impact of Eve Eisiner’s The Vagna Monologues cannot be overstated, as women disclosed their feelings and thoughts about the most intimate part of their body. Since then, under Vicky Featherstone’s tutelage, a greater percentage of plays at the Royal Court Theatre have female-centric themes, including Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract – which used verbatim material from a real, anonymous couple. Most recently, a show called Manwatching has been running, penned by another anonymous author in a committed relationship…

Each night a male comedian who is unfamiliar with the show is given the script to read (on the night I went it was Danny Brown). The ‘play’ itself is a chronicle of one woman’s sexual history –  not only about notable people during her odyssey, but a frank discusson about the trial and error nature of sexuality, and the ephemeral qualities of desire.

So why a male narrator? Asides from the candid specifics about ‘turn-ons’ and the accompanying emotions, sexual politics – especially in the second half of the show – comes to the fore and the one of the main points brought up is the ‘privilege’ of the male voice. Within society there is a subliminal ‘learnt’ assumption that news or information is more authoritative if its spoken by a man. Certainly the ambience of the evening would have been very different if a woman had been speaking. One would always wonder if she was really the author – and with this assumption, subliminal assessments about her character and conduct.

One of the things that struck me in the first half was how the author admitted, as a teenager, she would be a girlfriend to people who fancied her – but she didn’t necessarily feel any attraction in return. This raises the question of whether this (and other references in Manwatching) are representatve of all women’s experiences or whether this applies to just this anonymous person. In any case, it would remain many years before she found what SHE liked and even longer to rationalise what her “sexy brain” wanted versus what as a woman in a committed relationship she ‘should’ want.

Staying on the subject of commonly talked about experiences (or not), Manwatching delves into the darker side of fantasies and something that is even more ‘taboo’ than masturbation to talk about openly – personal experiences of abortions, a private matter that is disclosed only to the closest of friends. While Manwatching touches on male support in such circumstances, it also remind us that some men think they need to be “congratulated for being decent and not behaving like a psychopath.” The disparity in perspective of intimacy and really liking someone is also raised, as well the staying in contact (or not) in post-relationships.

For the most part, Manwatching‘s observational and candid admissions are funny, with the author using many a witty turn of phrase to get her point across (including the periods of being a physical relationship amusingly described as having “sexy times”).

I also don’t think that I’ll look at the Walt Whitman quote in Dead Poets Society – “O Captain! My Captain!” – in quite the same way ever again!

© Michael Davis 2017

Manwatching ran at Royal Court Theatre from 10th-20th May 2017.