We start the same way we did before. A rectangular border of clothes, shoes, accessories. They crouch in a circle and spin a bottle. They number themselves. They set timers on their phones. They step out of the space – (they call it ‘the field’) – and begin. They enter the field one by one, pausing, then leaving. Walk pause walk. They enter the field two at a time, meet, slide a hand across a chest, squeeze a shoulder, fall into another’s arms. Walk pause touch walk. This is how we begin.
But where in FCKSYSTMS this happened to a loud, pulsing soundtrack, here there is only the crackle of some static – it sounds like a field (eyy) recording of some kind. Unlike the generous performance space of The Yard, CPT is small, hot and cramped, the audience are sat around the field, and when the boys step outside of it they’re right up against your legs. You get the sense that this is going to be a quieter, more intimate gig than the all-out anarcho-bombast of FCKSYSTMS.
And it is. Most of the show is essentially a performed rehearsal, and moves to the leisurely, spacious rhythms of the rehearsal room. One at a time, the boys select clothes to wear and stand in a narrow walkway demarcated with green tape as the others sit around and watch, ask questions about the person’s choice of clothes, what the clothes feel like to wear and what they might mean to a spectator. Chris Goode wanders around outside the field, observing. He chips in with a thought or a provocation every now again. This is perhaps the furthest Ponyboy Curtis has gone in their striving for a practice which focuses on the building and maintenance of an ensemble and deprioritises ‘finished’ performance – here it’s like we’ve all been invited to observe their process. But there’s something weird about that. I guess the question is whether the trust, the intimacy and the simultaneous safety and danger of the rehearsal room (safety in terms of its privacy, danger in terms of the radical possibilities its particular set of working conditions might open up) is able to be transposed accurately in front of an audience.
To that extent, it’s actually quite impressive how natural, unselfconscious and familiar the ensemble is, and while the pace and cadences of rehearsal feel unfamiliar in the context of performance, it’s certainly never boring. But this rehearsalness seems like it can only be achieved by resolutely blocking out the audience. If the ensemble must behave as they would in a private setting, while 50 pairs of eyes watch them, then surely they must simply ignore those eyes. And I guess that’s the point, to make the private public, to reject the very notion of privacy as a capitalist impulse – here there are no walls or fences, just a permeable border, clothes and tape, things which can be worn and discarded and ripped up. But still, I wonder what this does for the audience. If it weren’t at CPT, in this small, hot, cramped room, I can imagine feeling very alienated from all this. And it can all so easily seem navel-gazing; when one of them says of their choice of clothes, ‘yeah, it’s unlocking something… something physical for me’, you sort of cringe a bit. Well, I do. It’s an example of a way of articulating things that might speak clearly in the shared language of a rehearsal room, but in front of an audience is instantly coloured with pretension and posturing. I wonder if the desire to stage rehearsal, or to invite an audience into a rehearsal, as much as it seems appealing, is sort of fundamentally disappointing for both parties. I’m not sure. I think they just about get away with it in walk pause walk.
After this, Chris Goode returns to his desk to the side and reads a long-ish text (I think it’s a piece of his own poetry but I could be wrong). Music builds and the boys begin to make out, touch each other. And over the next 20 minutes or so all the clothes that they have been wearing and analysing are shed; suddenly clothes don’t matter anymore as the Ponyboys kiss and grope and lick and rub and finger, falling about on the CPT floor, sweating under the lights. A fan in the corner turns on, and a desk lamp behind it gently flickers through the rotating blades. It’s here that the show falls into its stride, going much further than the fleeting sexual encounters in FCKSYSTMS. The sex is now up-close, sustained, less theatrical. If the rehearsal feels like a strange thing to be performed in this setting, the sex feels strangely appropriate. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I found the latter half of the show to be very lovely.
I have my reservations about Ponyboy Curtis. The niggling concerns were there after FCKSYSTMS but I find them more difficult to dampen now after seeing walk pause walk. There’s the issue of the ensemble’s whiteness, and I know this is something they’re fully aware of – their latest call-out for performers encouraged performers of colour to audition, so I’ll be interested in what the line-up for vs. at The Yard in June looks like. More troubling to me though, because it seems less easily remedied, is Goode’s role in the project. It seems right that he’s a much more explicit presence in the performance in walk pause walk than he has been in the past, but it also brings out something indisputably jarring about his observational role, his very conscious decision to facilitate but not to participate. It feels sort of wrong, when the five people on stage are making themselves so vulnerable and attempting a level of public intimacy which does seem genuinely quite radical, that Goode should remain in the shadows at the edges of the stage. Perhaps it feels especially discomforting because Goode’s body is markedly different from the ones which he, from his position of relative authority, decides to put on stage. I want to see what would happen if Goode were to join in with the Ponyboys, how that might change the dynamic of the ensemble and the possible meanings of the performance. It might lead to utterly disastrous results, I don’t know. And I’m sure there’s been a whole lot of thought put into this. I’d really love to know what the conversations around the structural organisation of Ponyboy Curtis, around casting decisions and the types of bodies that the ensemble should or could include, have been (maybe it’s that bit of the rehearsal process I want to be let in on). But from a lay perspective, it’s an irksome and persistent itch as I watch them try to build their romantic, queer utopia. I can’t convince myself this is quite as utopian a model as it wants to be.