Sex Cubed

(Roundhouse Theatre)


Do I need to say that this show is all about sex? There are seven short pieces by mostly beginning writers exploring various aspects of sex – including a couple of topics that one might never once have expected to see addressed on a Brisbane stage. And yes, there is some nudity and simulated sex required of the two actors who play all the parts.

But, as Sean Mee reminds us in his program note, sex is both an act and a word and, though there is quite a bit of enactment in Sex:Cubed , the show is very much concerned with talking about sex and especially with language itself; both its potency and impotence to communicate the complexities of emotions and desire.

While on the subject of language, here are some words you WON”T find in this review: ‘steamy’, ‘raunchy’, ‘suggestive’, ‘titillating’. Jennifer Flowers’ impeccable direction ensures that the performative aspects of sex are effectively distanced and appear as variously comically mechanical, sadly empty, or hilariously absurd. Hers is a coolly amused approach that is perfectly suited to the material, uncomfortably exploiting neither actors nor audience.

The cleverly minimalist set by Greg Clarke consists of a four metre square platform backed by a large square screen on which images appear throughout each piece. This small stage is topped by an even smaller square platform (should this be called Sex: Squared ?) which serves as bar, bed and dance floor. The swift costume changes occur onstage, accompanied by a lively mix of music that sets the mood for each story, as does the atmospheric lighting.

In the absence of complex sets, the screen plays an integral role right from the beginning of this production. As they enter, audience members are confronted by five multiple-choice questions flashed up on screen, inviting them to consider their preferred partners, positions, activities and proclivities. The clinical tone of the questions and apparently comprehensive list of permutations and possibilities serve to warn the audience that no areas of sexual activity will be considered taboo in this show. The repellently polysyllabic words used to describe what should be human intimacy hint at just such a tension in the plays that follow and, for the attentive, conceal a joke that intimates the lightness of touch that is also a feature of the show.

The first play, by Alex Broun concerns a young woman’s encounters in a bar where she is approached by several men, all with the same thing in mind. The first attempt at a pick-up is strongly language-driven as each party coolly sets out their requirements in a wonderful parody of a pre-nuptial (in this case pre-sexual) contract. The other encounters are interspersed between the other six plays, cleverly pulling the disparate pieces together and providing a slim but effective line of continuity. The final and successful pick-up is made when each partner believes that the other is, or is capable of being, a murderer – the possibility of death and danger proving the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The screen is particularly important in Scott Drummond and Gemma Galley’s Will you Lick My Eyeball? Here, an S&M-garbed couple perform their joyless sexual athletics to the accompaniment of a pair of demanding on-screen ‘sports commentators’, for whose apparent approval and rating they engage in ever more bizarre exploits. The interaction between what each of the couple actually wants and their misconceptions about what the other requires of them provides a very funny comment on the pressure that some people feel to appear as nothing less than a totally liberated and adventurous sexual performer.

In 3G David Megarrity explores the way in which technology – in this case the mobile phone – can create the illusion of improving communication between people, when in fact it further depersonalises contact. Here, the split screen displays the digital photos sent via phone that chart a relationship that is perceived quite differently by each of the participants. Isolated by spotlights on either side of the stage, the couple provide divergent commentaries on the key moments of what is already, for the woman at least, a memory to be erased by the Delete button.

In both Helen Howard’s Talking Dirty and Steven Mitchell Wright’s The Mourning After the emphasis is very firmly on language, though in Wright’s play the projected images also provide at times a lyrical commentary on the sadly ruminative monologue. Here Ryan Gibson is given the opportunity to portray all the confusion of a man, interested only in casual sex, who is suddenly surprised and overcome by love. This is a brave and moving performance in a play that disturbs by its readiness to explore the reality of homosexual loneliness and loss.

Rebekah Moore’s turn to display her virtuosity comes in Helen Howard’s poetic and verbally violent depiction of a woman driven to despair by the loss of what she values most in her relationship with her husband. In this play lists of words are flashed across the screen and used as offensive and defensive weapons as the woman struggles to understand her reactions to his infidelity and the withdrawal of what she sees as the essence of a loving relationship: each partner’s total absorption in the person of the other. Using language as the instrument of his re-education, she helps him begin his journey back into being honestly and totally present in even the simplest manifestation of love. This is an ambitious and complex play that it would be interesting to see in a different context.

Victor Kline’s The Salsa Lesson is essentially just that – and very enjoyable it is to watch too. This play comes closest to seeming to want to titillate the audience, but the apparently inevitable coitus is inconveniently interrupted, or at least deferred, comically subverting what has gone before.

In the final play The Goat or What the f@#k! Steven Martin brings together two of the strongest taboos in civilised society and, through exaggeration, succeeds in making them hilariously funny. The ever-present screen is an essential part of the action here – the comic-book graphics heightening the absurdity of the situation and thereby the comic effect. Yes, there is a real goat onstage, but try not laughing at the unthinkably awful if you can!

Overall, this is a very stylish production. Rebekah Moore and Ryan Gibson are a delight to watch throughout and move through the various pieces with composure, shifting easily from the comic to the serious and back again. In her control of the pace, tone, and mood of each play and of the production as a whole, Jennifer Flowers is exemplary as a director. Inevitably different members of the audience will prefer different components of the show, some finding offence or tedium where others find delight and depth. However, the evening reminds us, if we needed reminding, that sex has always been at the root (sorry) of all comedy and, conversely, causes more anguish in relationships than anything else. Maybe it reminds us too that a little voyeurism isn’t all bad – at least we women now know why men spend so long in the shower!

Directed by Jennifer Flowers

Playing until 11 November 2006: Tues – Wed 6:30pm, Thurs – Sat 8pm, Matinee 11 November 2pm.

Running time (no interval) 1 hour 45 minutes

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Wed 25th October 2006)