Blunt instruments: Arts Radar & Griffin Independent’s Five Properties of Chainmale

Nicholas Hope’s Five Properties of Chainmale is described as a “confronting, uncomfortable and comical” examination of “modern man [as he] grapples with his crumbling reflection.” Despite the clumsy title, you could be forgiven for expecting a provocative and thought-provoking piece of theatre. What we get instead is clumsy, rather blunt, and dramaturgically confused, and never quite works out what it is trying to say.

In his director’s note, Hope says how he intended to write a “series of thematically interconnected stories that dealt with the concept of male narcissistic personality disorder as a socially applauded ideology.” Fair enough. Despite sounding convoluted, there is much hope in Hope’s intention, but the result seems more like a first or second draft of a play, where the ideas are all there, but the shape – the mode of storytelling – is yet to be found and settled upon. Hope uses voice-over, narration, literally-staged depictions of narrated action, as well traditional scenes to try to convey his ideas, but ultimately this mash-up of styles does not meld into a cohesive whole but rather feels quite disjointed and fragmented (something which is reflected in the set). Also jarring is Hope’s switching of voices of characters – narrators will speak in a heightened, almost poetic style, while the male characters speak in another way, and the (infrequent) women in another. The distinction might work on paper, but in practice the gap between the narrator’s voice (that is to say, the main characters’ inner-voice) and that of the characters in the scenes is too great to be entirely believable, and it does not grow organically out of the scenes but rather feel ‘too writerly’, i.e. affected and put-on.
Dramatic tension is also largely missing – except for the fourth story, Hope’s vignettes exist in a languid kind of stasis where characters are but never really change or move forwards. In the fourth story, a fifteen year old boy is about to stand trial for sexual assault; while his father questions his son’s capacity to commit the deed, he remembers an episode from his own past which makes him think twice. In this story, even though it is clunky and over-described (in that we largely hear and see it simultaneously), there is a power and a narrative arc which works, which is relatively powerful even if it is not fully explored and examined for its dramatic and theatrical potential.
Baffling too, is Hope’s choice of locations and accents. As previously discussed, specificity comes through generalities, and I don’t think it is necessary at all for any distinction to be made as to where or when a story takes place, where the people are from, what their accents are. Surely, if I understand Hope’s intention correctly, any examination of masculinity extends to all men and women, and not just those in a specific town city or country. We don’t need to specifically be in ‘London’ or ‘Adelaide’ or ‘Oslo’ for the tribulations of men to be suddenly engaging to us.
Hope’s cast – Alan Lovell, Dominic McDonald, Jeremy Waters, and Briony Williams (who often bears the brunt of Hope’s theatrical brutality) – try their best to make the scenes, dialogue and play work as well as it can, but even they seem to be struggling at times with (and against) a play that doesn’t seem very theatrical yet; a play that is rather unsubtle, blunt, forced, forced and lacks nuance. The set (by Tom Bannerman & Thomas A. Rivard) is a mess of angles and mirrors and resembles something like a German expressionist’s wet-dream (think Dr. Caligari), while Christopher Page’s lighting is simple, unadorned and unobtrusive, and David Kirkpatrick’s sound design is effective in evoking a sense of sonic intimidation.

There is a casual racism and sexism on display here which shocks, a brutality which seems as blunt as a shovel; a masculinity on display which is deeply troubling, alienating, and woefully inappropriate in the current social climate. Hope’s writing lacks finesse, and his direction only heightens it – are we watching five separate stories, or five episodes from one man’s life; ultimately, why should we care about these empty and lifeless characters and their issues? I couldn’t help but be reminded of Caleb Lewis’ riveting Rust and Bone in the same space two years ago, and the resonances don’t do ‘Five Properties’ any favours – where Rust and Bone was a fine-tuned and finely-crafted and compassionate examination of masculinity which was deeply affecting and compelling, ‘Five Properties’ seems almost at risk of descending into a caricature of itself. What could have been visceral, searing, and confronting instead makes for an uncomfortable sixty minutes of theatre, but not for the reason Hope has intended. 

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