Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry - 07/10/15 and 08/10/15

I saw Weaklings twice, once on Wednesday 7th October and again on Thursday 8th October. During the second show, I wondered what it would be like if I saw Weaklings every single day. If Weaklings was one massive GIF, if it had to exist beyond what you saw of it, always in a slightly different realm, always revolving and replaying in your sleep. And if it did that, whether I would ever understand it.

In buying tickets for the show, I was effectively clicking that button that confronts anyone entertaining the idea of entering into Dennis Cooper's blog: 'I understand and I wish to continue'. Of course I didn't understand, despite the fact that I'd been on the blog and had read all of the material on the Weaklings blogs from the rehearsal room (this by Maddy Costa is a beautiful piece of writing, and is far more probing and insightful than this review has any hope of being) and so had a very vague idea of what to expect. But the fact is that it's impossible to know what the limits of your tastes, or moral sensibilities, or sheer scope of comprehension are until you reach them. I still don't understand, but I give permission for my lack of understanding to be tested.

Chris Goode said after the show on Wednesday that Weaklings was probably the least 'live' thing he's ever made. It would certainly fail his own cat test. All we see are images, mediated and obscured, fed through the gauze of Naomi Dawson's set of a cubic frame and folding screens. Bodies move on stage in dances of meaning, often to music, always within a kind of documentary, and each turn of the head or curl of a hip is a sign, each spelling out an identity. These identities are archetypal – there is a cynical writer who uses his wit as a weapon (Chris Brett Bailey), a hurting schoolboy whose fantasies of sexual bliss blur with the ecstasy of violence (Nick Finegan), a muse who is very much an icon of young, male beauty - a queer symbol (Craig Hamilton). And, of course, raised above the main playing area is the magnanimous deity that is Cooper himself, played (well, represented) here by Karen Christopher.

The people who comment on the blog are not real people to me. I mean I know they're people, but through the prism of the internet, they are unreadable and unknowable – just usernames and words which people only speak into a keyboard and never out loud. Seeing projected interviews with the actual people who are regular commenters and contributors on the blog – Thomas Moronic, Tender Prey, Lost Child, in the flesh, with real names and voices – doesn't help to reconcile this disparity between online performance and performance in real life. Nothing in this show is really 'real' – the actors speak internet words, real words are spoken by people on screens. Karen Christopher's voice is always slightly out of sync with the live feed of her face, in one section 'slave posts' are read in polyphony so that only snatches of text are discernible, and we rarely hear anything which isn't pre-recorded or amplified.

And yet the incredible thing is that for many people, there absolutely IS something real about this online sanctuary for the strange and the dispossessed – it is a safe space of care and comfort, not one of danger and disgust. The ethics of this online space feel like they have evolved organically, and can't be pinned down into a set of rules. It is an anarchic, utopian community of sorts, but there is something uglier, or at least more problematic, at play as well. The two most shocking parts of the show are 1) when Dennis Cooper replies to an email from a boy who has sent him a picture of a self-inflicted wound in a way which is sympathetic, yes, but more surprisingly suggests an absolute personal ethical line for Cooper beyond which neither the content of the blog nor his interaction with his congregation of weaklings must cross, and 2) an encounter of great tenderness and violence between the boy and the muse with whom he is obsessed which takes place near the end of the show.

The latter is shocking not because of its explicit sexual violence, but because it ruptures the balletic, glacial composure of the piece, suddenly bringing two naked, previously isolated, bodies together into a real space. It was interesting for me thinking about what Ponyboy Curtis at the Yard (which I didn't see) might look like in relation to Weaklings, that being a project entirely devoted to fostering a community in which performance and sexuality can be used as an expression of the utopian (or so I gather). Here there are two members of Ponyboy Curtis in a different show, one fucking the other one dead (well, there's also Chris Brett Bailey simultaneously strangling him with an electric cable, but it certainly feels like the sex is the primary act of violence). It absolutely captures the ambiguities of the boundaries which define permission, pleasure, pain, care, obsession, codependency.

I came out dazed and buzzing the first night. In hindsight, I think it was the aesthetic of the show that had shot its way into my bloodstream. The music, the soundscapes, the caring, gentle light, the frenzy of projection and the eruption of destructive intimacy at the end (though I absolutely see how these might feel more like familiar tropes to those who have seen more theatre than I have). The second night I felt more ambivalent about it, a little lost. The dramaturgy made its presence felt more strongly, the show seemed more organised and less disorientating, and the narrative and documentary elements were certainly more prominent and provided a helpful anchor to really start to read meaning into it.

But the better I felt I was able to understood the way the show worked, the less I felt I actually understood it. I really appreciated the interview segment with the show's assistant director Jennifer Tang, who explains that as a straight woman she finds it difficult to comprehend Cooper's blog in the way that its predominantly male, and often queer, readership might. I sympathise with this feeling of removal. This project is obviously the focus of great personal emotional investment for Chris Goode, but I almost felt a kind of exclusion from it, I suppose. That's not in any way the show's fault, it's just that I feel it inhabits a world that I don't really have the emotional tools to access. I'm a person who has never entertained the notion of self-harm, or indeed photographed himself naked, or really appreciated fictional violence of the kind in Cooper's work from anything other than an intellectual or aesthetic standpoint. I watch this act of emotional and sexual penetration on stage before me, and if I feel titillated by these bodies, I think it is because they are theatrical bodies, not because they are emotional and sexual ones.

But still the images persist, left looping in my mind, and I really want to understand them. And I give permission, I press the button: I don't understand. I wish to continue.