Edinburgh review: Locker Room Talk (Traverse Theatre)
Gary McNair's new play sees interviews with men regarding women performed on stage
Laughter ripples through Locker Room Talk. Guffaws. Chuckles. Sniggers. It comes in response to the most outrageous misogyny: men talking about women in lurid sexual terms, reducing them, rating them, writing them off and worse. "Everybody knows it's a joke," one man insists. It's just banter, innit? Just, you know, locker room talk.
That, of course, was how Donald Trump brushed off his infamous "grab 'em by the p****y" remarks to Billy Bush. In the wake of his election, Gary McNair interviewed dozens of men about women – the way they see them, the way they talk about them. Locker Room Talk puts their words, most of them aggressively offensive, some offensively aggressive, into the mouths of four female performers.
The result is a barrage of bile to a background of giggles. It's grimly depressing: talk of forty-pint faces and smashing back doors in; of scoring systems and sexual assault. "Women are only good for one thing," several say, yet there's a refusal to admit that real sexism exists. Not any more; not in 2017. Feminism is scoffed at: "Bunch of f**king ugly lesbians." Equal pay's a joke. Hilary Clinton is "just the f**kin' wife of Bill."
"It's a universal and universally understood cheap laugh", says one bloke. McNair shows it's far worse than that – not just cheap, but cowardly, childish and complicit. Laughter, here, entails a refusal to challenge. It tees up a culture in which such 'jokes' can continue – and almost every man around will have been guilty of that. McNair lets us see that there's something under the punchlines: a crisis of masculinity maybe, insecurity and fear. Perhaps even education: four school kids talk about "strong" boys and "weak" girls. They collapse into giggles at mere mention of girls.
It's potent stuff. How could it not be? McNair stacks up an hour of vileness and violence, almost all of which lands like a personal affront on at least half of those present. Like chucking a lit stick of dynamite into a packed theatre, it's deliberately inflammatory – but to what end?
At best, Locker Room Talk brings a closed conversation out into the open, exposing noxious sexism to those not privy to it and shaming those of us that partake or prop it up. Having women speak these words adds an ironic distance even as it adds culpability. While McNair never digs deep into the subject – the show was a speedy response to Trump's statements – Locker Room Talk inspires us to challenge a culture that's gone unchecked for too long.
It also does the opposite though. In the post-show talk, wisely built in to each performance, McNair spoke of becoming desensitised to the sexism he encountered in interview. Locker Room Talk, arguably, has a similar effect.
Theatrically, the problem is the form: this litany of misogyny, all of it unvarnished and unchallenged. We know McNair's gone fishing for it, but by excluding his own voice, his questions and responses, it removes a crucial element of context and hangs these (anonymous) men out to dry – perhaps rightly, perhaps not. Worse, it's a refusal to admit any complicity on his part. "It's not about me," McNair said in the post-show, but it is. As a man, it has to be.