On 22 May 2013, ITV News obtained footage of a man addressing a camera on a south London street. He makes a series of political statements before walking towards the body of Drummer Lee Rigby, lying prone on the road behind him. A meat cleaver in his bloodied hands, Michael Adebolajo’s justification for the murder is simple: “Leave our lands and you will live in peace.” This is the starting point of Chris Goode’s latest solo show, Men in the Cities, which is anything but simple.
In basic terms, most understand a monologue to be an extended speech by one person, usually exhibiting the thoughts, feelings and associations passing through a single character’s mind. Not Chris Goode. Not content with one mind, in Men in the Cities he speaks of and as several men.
There’s Ben and Matthew, Rehan, Dale, Tom, Albert, Paul, Jeff, Graeme, even Chris himself. Men in a city which appears to be London, but could really be anywhere. Some are nearing retirement age, another wakes up on his tenth birthday and wanks to gay porn on a website called Gay Twink. It’s near impossible to get a handle on everything being described, but together their seemingly disconnected voices amount to a complex, volatile, richly textured work about the radical possibilities of hope and change.
In an interview with FestMag ahead of the festival, Goode described how he has “always considered theatre a rapid-response medium, where other art forms have an inevitable time-lag”. There’s evidence of that here, with Men in the Cities melding moments of fact and fiction with little in the way of differentiation. It is framed by two violent deaths, one fictional one unequivocally real – the suicide of a young gay man, and the aforementioned murder of Drummer Lee Rigby outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman is also mentioned together with Woody Allen, Flight MH370 and Goode’s own relationship with his father. Goode explains how he can’t write the passage where Matthew finds the body of his deceased lover. “I’m writing this thing”, he says to his dad over the phone, “I’m a bit stuck.” It’s the only moment which feels slightly disingenuous.
Otherwise, Goode’s writing is rarely anything other than completely real. You can almost see Goode at his desk, syphoning snapshots of desolation from his window onto the page. He writes with astonishing clarity, articulating feelings of compassion with delicate precision. Goode lightens the unremitting bleakness with the odd well-timed joke and in these moments you remember what a refined talent he has for observational comedy.
Speaking into a microphone throughout, he could pass for a stand-up comedian. But Naomi Dawson’s stark design is far more eloquent and ephemeral than that of any comedy roadshow. Goode stands in front of a stack of electronic fans, changes of character signalled by subtle changes of colour in Katherine Williams’s discreet lighting design. The fans remain dormant for most of the 80 minutes, but their roaring intensity during the play’s most arresting moment is worth the ticket price alone. Credit, too, to Goode’s long-time collaborator Wendy Hubbard who directs Goode in that moment and innumerable others with enormous integrity.
Men in the Cities is a difficult, draining and, yes, depressing piece. But underneath it all is a radically humane portrait of how we live now. Offering no answers, it represents something like a cry for help to anyone who will listen and to no-one at all.
Men in the Cities is at the Traverse (Venue 15) until 24 August. For more information and tickets see the Edinburgh Fringe website.