Having not been seen for around a year Workshop UK’s Monster returns to Bristol’s Wardrobe Theatre. The play, both written and performed by Joe Sellman-Leava, explores topics relating to masculinity, violence and sexual abuse. We follow Joe through doubts over who he is and whether he needs to live up to or ignore challenging masculine stereotypes. When boiled down to the bones, the play is simply about Shakespeare, Patrick Stewart, Mike Tyson and the protagonist himself. Joe tells a personal story in which some details are true and some aren’t. It’s left to us to work out which is which; a puzzle that remains somewhat unanswered throughout. Yaz Al-Shaater’s direction creates great energy, but it is truly Sellman-Leava’s raw acting that allows this piece to thrive.
The play suits the intimate space of the Wardrobe Theatre brilliantly and allows for acute connection between Sellman-Leava and the audience. Playing himself, the actor poses multiple questions about violence, particularly in relation to some of his childhood experience. It’s as if he is trying to come to terms with a few isolated incidents which seem quite detached from the calm and caring person we see before us. His movement control is commendable as he invites the audience into his world and the debate he is having inside his own mind. The addition of other characters allows this piece to extend beyond just one man on stage, but perhaps it is the stillness achieved through having a solitary figure present that allows it to be so moving.
The powerful script is made more of an ensemble piece by using not only voices to indicate additional characters, but also subtle head movements. In the scenes between Joe and his girlfriend the second imagined actor almost feels present on stage.
Lighting and a simplistic set are used effectively to signify frequent changes in location, from a flat to a rehearsal space and somewhere in between. In a particularly effective interaction one of the chairs is used to help originate other characters as Joe, during a rehearsal, expresses violence towards it.
Short moments of comic relief are welcome, as we grapple with difficult questions surrounding sexual violence and masculinity, and balance great energy with stillness. It is the coming together of all elements that makes this intricate piece what it is, and without each subtle detail it would not be as effective. Ultimately a tough topic is dealt with in an effective and powerful way, creating a thought-provoking exploration into masculinity.
Written by: Joe Sellman-Leava
Directed by: Yaz Al-Shaater
Dramaturg by: Anna Beecher
Produced by: Worklight Theatre
Booking link: http://thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/worklight-monster/
Booking until: 23 January 2020 (Bristol) then touring, see show website for details