Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
As we sit in the semi-darkness, a man in a plaid shirt (Alistair Lownie) is extolling the virtues of expensive stereo systems. He wants to be sure that we don’t allow ‘the salesman in the Next suit’ to fob us off with something inferior. The cables we use are every bit as important as the hardware, he assures us. Whatever we do, we should never use the cables that actually come with the system; they are rubbish! As he talks, the lights come slowly up to reveal a stage that is littered with great chunks of firewood, a table containing a hi-fi and what looks like several items of flatpack furniture. We are in the realms of experimental theatre here, and anyone looking for a straightforward narrative is going to be bitterly disappointed.
Then a woman (Katherina Radeva) appears. She’s dressed in a slinky red dress, her makeup is artlessly overdone and she’s gurning and winking suggestively at the audience. As the man plays a series of MOR tracks, she reveals that she’s a Bulgarian immigrant, and launches into a rambling speech about the history of the UK as it appears to her – all jumbled and confused because of her indiscriminate reading of the news. She is a staunch fan of Mrs Thatcher, concerned about the state of modern masculinity, and is convinced that Brexit is an inevitable result of the proliferation of DIY stores like B & Q and Homebase. Her views are lifted from various publications, but they are awkwardly, sometimes comically, skewed. As the speech progresses, becoming ever more tortuous, the man embarks on a DIY project of his own, building the framework of what looks suspiciously like a man cave and pausing occasionally to cue up the next track – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Elton John, Dire Straits, Pulp…
In truth, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be taking from this – so I’m glad of the opportunity afterwards to have an informal chat with Lownie and Radeva, who explain how the project came about and what the thinking is behind it. Radeva’s character is intended to be an unreliable narrator, she says. Born in Bulgaria under a Communist dictator and now living in Scotland, Radeva’s background is in performance art, rather than in acting and this is certainly reflected in the chaotic set and the exaggerated posturing. Lownie’s character, he reveals, is desperately trying to cling on to outmoded aspects of the traditional male role model. A powerful sequence towards the end of the production is nothing more than a string of familiar clichés, each one more vacuous than the last, but performed in this way they seem to offer something of genuine authority.
Two Destination Language’s Manpower is certainly thought-provoking stuff, even if my main thought is ‘what the hell does this all mean?’ I think it’s also quite a brave undertaking by the duo, who have been performing and reshaping this piece for something like two years. When they started, Trump was just coming to power. Now the inexorable approach of Brexit means they are genuinely worried for their future together. Manpower has one more performance at the Traverse before embarking on a nine date tour of the UK.
If it comes your way, do go and see it – and please let us know what you think. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions. I’m not sure this entirely works, but I’m nonetheless pleased to have had the opportunity to view this uncompromising and challenging production.