What if no one had the legal right to refuse any person’s request for any sexual act? Would this new law produce a new breed of equality? These are the questions at the centre of Gaudeamus, the new play by Peter Morris, set on a Vermont campus where students make and enforce their own laws. Written chiefly as a series of monologues by three characters, we are invited to leave prejudice aside and watch this play with an open mind to the possibilities.
The audience enter the production at the Arcola in East London as Lynette (Chipo Chung) pauses between pillars to read a book, self-consciously and unconvincingly. In only a few moments she will come forward to talk directly to us, introducing herself and the audience as strangers “because that’s what we are”. Lynette is intended, according to Morris’s script, to come across as “confident, charismatic and breathtakingly intelligent” but instead she seemed twitchy and immature. The pace at which Chung delivers her monologues seems set in the first few sentences and her character is equally unmoving. She is the force behind the social experiment, but starts out, and remains, ignorant of the darker effects of her new “law”.
Had Chung played the role with less enthusiastic naivety, the plot would have been a little more believable. Brad (Travis Oliver) and Helen(Kika Markham) achieved noticeably stronger performances. Brad is a golden retriever-esque college kid, straight out of the American teen college movie, obsessed with sex and completely self-absorbed. Helen, although a 68-year-old virgin with an apparently liberal background, was played in a way that this bizarre sexual anomaly didn’t distract from the composed Professor of Classics who enjoys conjugating verbs in bed.
Having opened the play with a request to the audience not judge to, not to form stereotypes and not to expect the expected, I was disappointed in the cardboard cut-outs Morris presented throughout this play. Not only the main characters (blond jock, black radical and witty prim professor), but all the other characters mentioned seemed to have been observed from such a distance that their individual characteristics had been lost; the ugly Goth, the confused gay and many more, but for me the most shocking, a woman who has had a double mastectomy who is portrayed as completely sexless now that she has no breasts.
Each sexual encounter seems only to reinforce these stereotypes. Perhaps these characters could have been portrayed by the cast with more individuality, but it would be hard to overcome the fundamental flaw in the play, a weakness that requires the story told in monologues as any dialogue between characters would cause this “what if” fantasy to crumble.
Lynette claims to be interested in the possibilities that lie in the moment before you kiss someone for the first time; she says it is then that “you can be anything”. The logic being that if there was no prejudice, if everyone was alive to the possibilities of kissing anyone they wanted, then all of us really could do and be anything. It seems a little foolish to point out that this idea just won’t work; but it seems someone should have. Having passed this new “law” the campus becomes a place where anyone can exercise power over others. They cry, bully and mentally scar fellow students and then leave, but almost without admitting that their plan was flawed.
This play lacked the direction needed to make it really funny or really interesting – it floated between sex jokes and revolution. I held myself open to the “possibilities” but nothing happened. Even the ending was disappointingly straight-laced.
Sex was never going to be the great equalizer, not between men and women, not between young and old, and it can’t force improvements in race relations, religious relations or self-image. The acting in general was good, particularly in the bringing out the humour in the script, but the premise of this play just wasn’t strong enough to take one and a half hours of exploration.
By Jeannine Inglis-Hall
The production continues until April 15. The Arcola, with online booking.