It’s a strange paradox that confessionals largely occur either with the priest or the prostitute. Trade makes use of the confessional between an older man and a young rent boy whose services he has procured previously. The play is stripped back to its bare essentials with a minimalist dialogue, a dingy B&B bedroom and two characters that remain nameless. Yet despite the simplicity of the story and setting, there is nothing simple in the execution of this play. It is honest, raw and cleverly places the audience as voyeur and witness to the complexity of both men’s lives.
Trade is set in a bed & breakfast on Great Denmark street as part of the 2011 Ulster Bank Theatre Festival and is written by Mark O’Halloran, he of the brilliant film Adam and Paul, and directed by Tom Creed. The play cleverly makes use of space to heighten the intimacy between the two characters and the audience. The older man moves back and forth between the wall and the bed where the young man sits leaving the audience in anticipation of ‘what next?’ I found myself in the strange position as a woman whose gender is normally the objectified, becoming the objectifier. When the older man asks the young man to take off each item of clothing throughout the play I found myself looking at him through the eyes of the older man. I understood that gaze of sexual longing and it was an uncomfortable feeling. At times I averted my gaze. It reminded me that almost all of us view others as sexual meat from time to time.
The themes of love, longing and secret identities are highlighted in the fifty minutes of this dark and sometimes funny play. Things are not what they seem. The older man alternates between gobshite drunk, a man bottled up with hidden rage to a kindly, almost paternal figure. He is a man on the edge, having lived a life that conformed to the norms by getting married, having children and maintaining a steady job until he realises with sickening reality that the authority figures, in this case his father, lived a double life. In turn the younger man lives a fractured life; he has a baby daughter who he supports by selling his body, a precarious relationship with his girlfriend and stays with friends but with no fixed abode. Throughout the play both actors manage to command our attention equally and neither Philip Judge as the older man or Ciaran McCabe as the young man overshadows the other.
The word powerful gets bandied about a lot. Yet this play is powerful because it touches the deepest longings within all of us that transcends gender or sexual orientation. It reveals the need to be authentic to the self, to be accepted and to be loved. The older man is on a downward spiral, his life has been on shifting sands with the loss of his job, the death of his father and the realisation that he has been living a lie. His gaze at the young man is not just sexual, it is a longing for youth, for lost opportunities and escape. When he tells the young man that he is in love with him, he retorts back ‘you don’t know me’ and that he is living a fantasy. One sees the hostility and outrage in the rent boy when he reminds the older man that it is paid sex, a trade and nothing else.
Yet the beauty of this play for me was the ending when the older man asked to be held. I found I could barely breathe as the light went out and he traversed the space between them and placed his arms around the young man, who stood there awkward and immobile, yet slowly, tentatively, he put his arms around the older man, his hands balled into fists. And as we hear the older man sob, we witness the young man slowly, ever so slowly, unclench his fists and return the embrace. Two fractured men separated by age but connected by their loss and otherness. To date this has been the most powerful and compelling performance that I have ever watched or as in this case witnessed.
© The Bag Lady October 2011
© The Bag Lady October 2011