It’s hard to do a ‘good’ show about masculinity. It’s very hard. All around us, masculinity and its impact on those surrounding it are experiencing a shift, both in how it’s addressed, and in what it should, or perhaps could, be. To put it simply: the definition of what a man can be is far more broad, far more extensive than it was perhaps forty years ago – it’s even changed significantly in just the last decade.
Brawn, directed by Matt Staite, occupies an interesting little slice of middle ground in this ever-changing landscape. It’s framed by an obvious separation between the complex combination of self-identity and self-esteem that allows a show like this to be made, and the totally self-perfecting, perhaps self-absorbed outlook of its single character.
In this one man performance, we spend an evening with Ryan (Christopher Wollaton). He’s a young man whose aspirations are much starrier than his actual achievements, and who has buried himself in a world of exercise. The motivation behind this seems twofold. On the most conscious level, Ryan strives for perfection. He may not be able to change his world (there are allusions to his father’s heavy drinking and to his own missed opportunities) but he can change his body. Another explanation, a more tacit one, is that exercise has become a place for him to hide. A world to escape into and a way to manage his anxiety.
Much of this is explicitly stated, to the point where certain moments do feel a little closer to telling than showing, but I personally see this as a positive. Not much is said of the male experience with mental health problems, even less is said about body-image related mental health problems within men. It’s so important that these things are openly discussed, and theatre is as good a place to start as any.
My only real qualm with Brawn would be the abruptness of its ending. The piece builds itself to an intentionally uncomfortable point, but then is unable to conclude. On the other hand, I like that we leave Ryan at a point of decision. We don’t know where he’ll go once we leave him, but there is a very real sense that his decision may shape his life tremendously, or at least his foreseeable future.
Brawn is, really, a great little piece of theatre. Not only starring, but also written by Wollaton, it treats some challenging topics very respectfully, and illuminates them without feeling forced or self-applauding. I haven’t seen any other productions tackle this specific issue, and it’s a brilliant thing that, to at least a small extent, this ground is being covered.
Brawn is playing until 19 January. For more information and tickets, visit The Space website.