It’s not every day you get the opportunity to see a play set in Rome in 130 A.D. Life was different then. Public nudity was common-place, and mothers enthusiastically coached their handsome young sons in the sensual skills necessary to succeed as an eromenos, (male prostitute), in the hope that he might attract a wealthy protector.
It’s also not often that you get to see male nudity and sexuality portrayed so frankly, so fearlessly and so effectively on stage as in this striking production.
While visiting various museums in Italy, David Atfield was fascinated by how many statues were on display of a young man called Antinous. Enquiries revealed Antinous was the favourite of the Emperor Hadrian. This information was enough to seed a desire in Atfield to delve further into the life and times of Antinous. What he discovered is fascinatingly revealed in this play, Scandalous Boy.
We first meet Antinous as a nude statue, set on a pedestal in the centre of a huge circular bed draped in white satin. The statue comes to life, strides to the front of the stage and addresses the audience directly. When he notices that some audience members appear distracted by the sight of his penis, Antinous thoughtfully slips into a pair of spangled trunks.
These trunks come and go frequently during the course of his story, told in seamlessly flowing episodes, and for which he is joined by a variety of characters. Often confronting, these episodes are artfully staged, conjuring up images familiar from Greek and Roman statuary particularly during the cleverly staged the nude wrestling sequence.
Blessed with a body any Greek statue would envy, Ethan Gibson as Antinous, also possesses considerable presence and acting ability. Perfectly cast and completely at ease with the required nudity, he skilfully manipulates the audience’s response to Antinous.
At first he’s open, engaging and funny. But as the play progresses, the audience come to realise that his mother has done her work well, and that his professed love for Hadrian is no more than a strategy to achieve his own ends.
As mesmerising as Gibson is, this is no one-man show. He is surrounded by a strong cast of experienced actors of which Nicholas Eadie as the besotted Emperor Hadrian is particularly impressive in his depiction of the decline from warrior emperor to snivelling lover, skilfully seduced by the beauty of Antinous and his knowledge of unsuspected carnal delights.
Emma Strand is also a strong presence, first as Antinous mother, then as the young Empress Sabina, enduring the most grotesque of wedding nights, and finally as the older, wiser empress, protecting her position in court from the manipulations of Antinous.
Both Raoul Cramer as Lucius, Hadrian’s older former lover, now advisor, and James Hughes as Marcellus, servant to Sabina and lover to Antinous, contribute strong, effective portrayals in a production that often has the feeling that a much large cast is present, due in no small part to Imogen Keen’s imaginative setting and the evocative lighting by Gillian Schwab.
Though set in 130 A.D. the language in the play is that of the present day. So are the deliberately ambiguous and witty costumes. Unsurprisingly it works a treat.
Though inherently a play exploring love between men, it would be a shame if this play was sidelined into the realm of queer theatre, as it has much to say about the nature of love, and the manipulative power of a certain kind of love.
The nudity and sexuality are matter-of-fact and necessary, rather than gratuitous and it gives a fascinating insight into another time and another way of thinking about love and sex. Best of all; it’s hugely entertaining, informative and refreshing.
Another product of The Hive and First Seen initiatives of The Street Theatre, this play deserves to be seen beyond Canberra, and hopefully will be. If it comes to a theatre near you, make sure you see it.
Writer/Director: David Atfield Designer: Imogen Keen Sound Design: Liberty Kerr Lighting Design: Imogen Schwab
Scandalous Boy The Street Theatre, 15 Childers Street, Canberra City West Season: 14 – 23 November 2014
For more information, visit: www.thestreet.org.au for details. Image: Scandalous Boy – photo by Lorna Sim Review: Bill Stephens