Definition of Man

at Greenside @ Infirmary Street

* * * - -

Impressive physical theatre is weighed down by an overload of philosophising

Image of Definition of Man

The floor of the Mint Studio at Greenside @ Infirmary Street is completely covered with plain rows of cardboard and dissonant, windswept sounds play over speakers as the audience enters. When the two actors enter we might think this is a prehistoric setting and the characters some kind of early humans based on their shabby clothes and smeared faces. In fact, as they begin to speak of all that they miss in the world, we realise that this is a distant future and that these are literally the last man and woman on earth, never named in the script and only listed in the programme as XX and XY.

Definition of Man is more a think-piece than a play. There’s no three-act plot nor much attempt to make the characters feel like “real” people. Instead, the lone couple are a Jane and John Doe – archetypal “male” and “female” figures who pontificate on and ponder humanity, the futility of life and gender politics. The back-and-forth philosophising opens up interesting notions, but occasionally loses audience engagement.

In addition to the dialogue, this is a fine example of physical theatre and the talented performs – Nikki Muller and Jason Rosario – perform impressive acrobatics and manoeuvres throughout. The interaction of their bodies acts as a physical metaphor for their relationship as they balance together, embrace, support one another, and often throw each other around.

Again, however, whilst this is visually engaging, the lengths of dialogue surrounding it are less captivating sometimes. As part of Definition‘s abstract nature, it feels like patches of three or four different plays sewn together in a mish-mash fashion. We shift from biological theory to literary quotations to emotive discussions about love and resentment. At times it’s fascinating and the scientific segments are often more interesting than the romantic conflict between the two “characters”.

One troublesome point is the play’s treatment of gender roles. It mainly relies on very traditional ideas (that most audience members will admittedly find true and recognisable), e.g. men are concerned with sex, aggression, and physicality whereas women are associated with language, emotion and creativity. What it doesn’t seem to address is everything in between the two binary ideas and whether or not these things are always true. Undoubtedly, Muller, who also writes the piece, probably doesn’t believe in these stereotypes either. XX does, and during the climax confronts XY about his machismo and suggests he only fulfils what he has been taught to believe by society. It just seems like a missed opportunity – and a little alienating for some viewers – to leave the unfinished argument so late.

The play, ultimately, is an odd mix. Interesting ideas are batted around and the physical agility and skill of the actors is undeniable. Trying to pin down much of a conclusion from it all, though, makes for a less satisfying activity.