Review: ‘Fragile’ at the Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham

Set up in traverse I looked down the spotlight into the eyes of Nigel Francis, already sat in character as ‘One.’ His eyes were elsewhere, his hands grasped desperately around a beer, his mind far away. I averted my eyes. It was very stark. The space was tense and in that intimate playing area I let my eyes wander over the figures of the other audience members, I felt as if I too were being scrutinized and not just Francis.

Geoff Thompson’s semi-autobiographical production was a raw one man show with Francis holding the audience in his grasp for the full hour. The script revolved around One’s flashbacks of sexual abuse which he was a victim of as a young schoolboy at the hands of his teacher. What distraught One even more was that this male teacher was one he worshiped as his role model, a model he found as result of a gap left by his frequently drunk father. And yet here One sat, beer in hand as he told all to his tape recorder, a technique which his psychiatrist recommended. One retells his tale as we, the audience, are dragged through time and then propelled back, repeatedly and almost violently, to the life shattering implications those moments had for the present.

One’s hands and head were adorned with black lightning bolt tattoos whilst white lightning bolts scored the black floor. The stage design worked as a contrast of light and dark. Lightning also captured the mood of Francis’ spectacular performance. Whilst taking a while to warm to the audience he struck the right level of intensity, grabbed us by the hand and drew us up so we teetered dangerously forever on the cusp of something violent and unstable. One moment his voice was crashing like thunder so full of rage and then it was filled with vulnerable sadness churning like the clouds of a storm. Fragile was a performance and a script full of opposites.

It was a very male dominated play – a male victim, a male perpetrator, a father and a male psychiatrist. His mother was so distant that she grew vaguely spectral as One appealed to her repeatedly in his flashbacks to believe him about the incident with his teacher. A crisis of identity and a crisis of masculinity were the two ideas that filled my notepad for pages after I left the performance. It was his identity as a rape survivor that One struggled with and in a moment of anger he raged how he could kill a man with his bare hands only for him to later reflect how fragile he had become.

One’s character yearned for a woman’s presence and acceptance, his mother’s especially, but also a potential girlfriend in his youth. Yet despite their limited mention in the script One spoke in language that replicated stereotypical feminine images based around his own prepubescent body at the time of the incident. He described his pretty body and his soft feminine body. Like the light and dark of the production design One’s brain worked in contrasts – his father a bad male role model and his teacher a seemingly positive one, his masculine teacher and his young feminine body, the lips of his young crush and the slug tongue of his teacher.

It was clear that Thompson was not only engaging with discussions about the lasting implications on the lives of victims of sexual abuse but that also this related to wider discussions of gender norms and masculine identity. These latter two social themes have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years and we need look only to the Southbank Centre’s ‘Being a Man’ (BAM) festival of January 2014 to see this. What is significant is that the festival readily and widely identified patterns of men in society understanding their identities as relative to the changing identities of twenty-first century women. What we can understand as central themes then are not only the sexual abuse itself but the implications this had, as it happened before puberty, on One’s conception of male adult social and sexual identity within a society obsessed with opposites – of victim and perpetrator and of male and female.

Thompson certainly succeeded at creating an interesting script, the performance was over but it didn’t quite feel finished somehow. But the lasting damage of sexual abuse never is finished and this lack of closure was fitting. “Everything that happens to me is good” was the repeated refrain from One in his attempt to cling to some positive sense of what he might have gained from the experience and yet we knew that it was certain that no good would ever come of it.

This article was originally published by Slaney Street. 

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