14th century English pilgrims didn’t always have the means or devotion to reach Jerusalem. That was an especially long and dangerous journey. Why hot foot it to the holy land when the original multinational had a closer franchise? The shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury attracted the faithfully uncommitted who in turn gave Geoffrey Chaucer some great material.
Nicholas Hope’s new play Five Properties of Chainmale isn’t quite The Canterbury Tales, but it skewers the vanity of men with similar intent. In the program Hope writes of his desire to examine – in a self-deprecating way – modern man’s “self-justified, self-centred” and “often cowardly acts of evil”. Hope’s sense of evil is fortunately much more Chaucer than Holy Inquisition, but we are nonetheless given a sort of trial by combat. In the dock; not a character, but a condition: male narcistic personality disorder, which Hope alleges has become a sort of default social ideal. Why the hell do we stand for it?
In five discrete vignettes Five Properties looks to de-construct our acceptance of this male egotism. Structured as boxing rounds there is something undeniably pugilistic about his attack. Each round is different, both in location and timbre. Most, but not all, are comic. A different angle is revealed from round to round.
It’s refreshing to see a man’s critique of the male psyche. There is a satisfying soupcon of misanthropic vulgarity. Men just might deserve it! You don’t have to think long or hard to see ample justification for a jeremiad here or there. Tiger Woods. Dominique Strauss Kahn. Lehman Brothers. Lance Armstrong. Dubya. And those just off the top of this homocentric head. The internet isn’t big enough to list them all.
With energetic performances from Alan Lovell, Dominic McDonald, Jeremy Waters and the adaptable Briony Williams, Nicholas Hope makes a reasonable stab at a memorable take-down without necessarily delivering the king-hit. As a man there are some excruciatingly moments – not all of them funny. Sometimes you’ve got money and friends and other times you’re just a bad lay no one wants to talk to wallowing in delusions of grandeur and memories of relevance. That’s life.
Lending gravitas is a sojourn into the difficult subject of female sexual assault and the ambiguities of male communication. Are men inherently violent? What powers restrain them? What instincts transform them from sons to criminals?
Most entertaining of all was the swapping and recycling of actors within scenes. Lines are dropped here and picked up there. Characters flick around the room as if by remote – disappearing and reappearing with surprising legibility. It probably shouldn’t work, but mostly it does.
A weakness might be found in a sense of narrative dislocation. We don’t get to know characters enough to care too much. They don’t hang around for long (maybe that’s why Chaucer kept his characters on the road with him – the better to flesh them out), but on the other hand this moves the impression from the specific to the general. The risk of caricature is replaced by a sense of recognition. Am I like these men? Uncomfortably, in some ways, yes.
Five Properties of Chainmale is by no means perfect. But it’s fun nonetheless and the insights are real. I don’t know why we are taken to Norway, but the sense of cold is real and change from a bone-chilling street to a crowded and awkward gallery is impressively evoked. Then we’re in Adelaide. Then a courthouse. Then Sydney. And elsewhere. But there is a certain charm.
That is probably Hope’s real achievement. Through irony, self-deprecation, and humour we are willing to look just a little at the vanities, excesses, and dangers of man’s love of himself (beautiful creature that he is!). And as Chaucer might have concluded, in many different ways Man is a dickhead. A fact we would do well to acknowledge. Five Properties of Chainmale won’t take you all the way to Jerusalem, but it gets you on the road and makes you think as well.
Arts Radar and Griffin Independent present
FIVE PROPERTIES OF CHAINMALE
by Nicholas Hope
Director Nicholas Hope
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre 10 Nimrod Street Kings Cross NSW
Dates: 15 – 9 May, 2015
Tickets: $38 – $30
Bookings: 02 9361 3817 | www.griffintheatre.com.au