A one man show leaves Megan Stodel uncertain with its focus on violence against women
My mother and I left the Bristol Old Vic after watching Bluebeard. We walked in silence for a few minutes. Eventually my mother spoke: “Well, I don’t envy you having to review that!”
Just like her, I have no idea how to feel about Bluebeard. Most of this confusion comes from the fact that the only character in the one hour play is something of an unreliable narrator. The things he says are undeniably disturbing and intentionally problematic; I’m trying to work out whether this play aims to expose or excuse the delusions of a psychopath.
‘Jim’, the narrator whose life the story follows, is played astoundingly well by Paul Mundell. Sometimes seductive, sometimes harrowing, he has the audience listening to every word as he divulges the details of his past relationships. He has had a string of these with a variety of women, who have little in common apart from their supposed desire to be dominated – or, more accurately, to be hurt.
Jim tells us the women are “complicit” in their abuse. They want pain and he is well equipped to give it to them. Sometimes it seems he is describing a consensual and satisfying relationship centred on bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism (BDSM). However, it is clear that Jim goes much further, his acts of domination get tied up with anger and frustration and his protestations of mutual enjoyment ring terribly false as he explains how he loves to watch women weeping more than anything else.
At times, I wondered what the point of the play was. While I think it is important to explore the theme of violence against women in cultural productions, only receiving the point of view of the abuser gives a confusing and sometimes misleading overview. However, on occasions, I was able to interpret some lines in a way that highlighted issues that affect women. He tells the audience that the women “ask for it” and so he is merely treating them as who they want to be. These words are frequently spoken as people argue for consent in its absence. If a woman has had sex with a man before, does that mean she has consented to do so in the future? If a woman flirts with man, is it ok for him to assume she’s up for it? If a woman is wearing a short skirt, how is a man supposed to know that she might not be interested in him? In some ways, Bluebeard challenges the “asking for it” myth – it could not be clearer that what Jim does to women is vicious and, even if there is initial enthusiasm, his ultimate actions are unasked for.
Of course, the framing of Bluebeard within BDSM relationships is hardly good press for those involved in these. Far, far too often fiction portrays women who are sexually submissive as weak and men who are sexually dominant as downright disturbed. Jim receives sexual satisfaction from his aggression towards women and their submission to him; he becomes a cliché when it is revealed that there is an underlying psychological reason for this. No doubt many in the BDSM community would feel aggrieved at yet another portrayal of their sex lives as a consequence of previous trauma.
The nuances of the script may have benefited from a larger cast. Too often, Bluebeard felt like a succession of 10 minute monologues strung together, each story with similar patterns, which is probably why I ended up feeling so frustrated. Despite the neatly worded script, I didn’t seem to advance in my understanding of the character or the situations. . I imagine additional characters would change the play enormously, perhaps giving it a clarity that it currently lacks. I would certainly have been interested in a monologue from the aunt mentioned in the most gripping part of Jim’s tale, a woman whose complexity could only be hinted at by the solipsistic narrator.
All this aside, Bluebeard was often a brilliant production. As already mentioned, Mundell is an incredibly gifted actor; the fact that a one man show generally kept the momentum going was often down to him. He was complemented well by the lighting and music, which made the staging dynamic and gripping. Hattie Naylor’s script, though evasive, creates an interesting character with engaging turns of phrases.
Overall, there was enough good about the production to make me hesitant to criticise it. However, the subject matter left me (no doubt intentionally) uncomfortable as efforts to explore or interrogate the issues were underplayed or overly reliant on stereotypes. I believe that all those involved with this production are talented: it would be refreshing to see this talent channelled more thoughtfully when dealing with difficult subject matter.
Bluebeard was on at the Bristol Old Vic 11-15 June. It will be playing at Soho Theatre later in the year before going on tour in 2014.
Pictures from the show are used with permission. Both depict Jim, a man in a grey suit and a white shirt with the top buttons undone. In the first, he stands with his hands out on either side in a gesture of defiant openness. In the second, he is sitting on a chair on stage, with two fluorescent lights on the floor either side of him and two lighting him from behind.