An assured festival highlight swaggered onto the Contact stage last night in a breath-taking paroxysm of sinew and sweat: Tamar Blom and Kajetan Uranitsch gave us their all in Body On, an award-winning piece of physical theatre currently in the midst of a European tour. To call this ‘physical theatre’ may be an understatement: its subject is the body, and the performers treat us to the impressive spectacle of their sculptural, classically perfect – and, crucially, completely naked – bodies from the outset. As we file into the theatre, they sit or stand in apparently casual stasis, meeting our gaze with an attitude of steady nonchalance. Already, this show seems to invite an encounter with the particular quiddity of spectatorship. And sure enough, despite the frankness and austerity of its content, Body On is remarkable for the ways it asks us, moment to moment, to question precisely what it is we are looking at, and how we might attempt to make sense of it.
Let’s be clear: I’m watching this as a middle-aged gay man, familiar with the shagged-out clichés of homoerotic iconography (which may translate as fetishized reproductions of idealised masculinity), so my responses to it may well be nuanced in different ways to yours, but this is not pornography. Indeed, I was struck by the apparent ease with which we all accepted the collective spectatorship of something we might be embarrassed to be caught watching. The moment Abba’s Dancing Queen strikes up, these beautiful boys, in isolation from one another on the vast Contact stage, basically get down to it. Not a trace of camp invades the space, though. There’s no other way of saying this: they fuck hard, at first with invisible recipients (although their flaccid state complicates the impression) and then, hilariously and absurdly, with whatever the space offers them: the wall, the seating bank, a staircase. Yes, it’s funny and animalistic and undeniably pretty hot, but after a while something shifts … their expressions turn ugly and desparate, the sheer, grim determination and effort takes on a more troubling resonance. I begin to think of addiction, of prostitution, of the body as a strange, distorted fucking-machine, and something of the way that repetition in language can detach a word from its signified (hand, hand, hand, a hundred times hand until: what is ‘hand’?) begins to happen. What am I looking at?
And then the piece shifts into a sensual, intimate exploration of each other, each performer writhing and twisting over the other’s sweaty, exhausted flesh, and questions are raised about what it is that attracts men to each other, the way that the safety of rituals in sport allow straight men intimate access to each others’ bodies. The piece is ultimately a complex and problematic exploration of masculinity. The final movement switches from something that suggests sex, the fulfilment of mutual need and desire, the licking and tasting of sweat, into violence and repulsion: stepping apart and gobbing at each other, marking territory, drawing a line across the permissive access to something more intimate and dangerous. This is an astonishingly confident piece of work, fully deserving of its accolades and certain to gather more as it strides across Europe.
You’re kind of like a hairy stranger I know