Trainers – Gate Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Sylvan Oswald

Director: Hester Chillingworth

What constitutes an essay? That is one of the first, and least important, questions addressed by Sylvan Oswald. His piece Trainers has the subtitle The Brutal Unpleasant Atmosphere of This Most Disagreeable Season: A Theatrical Essay, but is very different from the form we are taught in schools, with a distinct start and conclusion and a limited structure in between.

Oswald, his words performed jointly by Nicki Hobday and Nando Messias, draws his own comparisons towards Michel de Montaigne, who in the 16th century wrote some 100 essays that are noted for digressions into anecdote and personal rumination. And that’s what Trainers is, albeit for a fictional character rather than for Oswald himself.

Hobday and Messias refer to the essay’s writer as “I”, sometimes embodying the writer themselves, sometimes using an upright rolled-up carpet as a letter-shaped proxy. This essay has a narrative, albeit one which creeps slowly into the presentation. That the writer had a friend, Steven, who has died is established fairly early on; but for a while, all we know is that he too was a writer.

Using a stage full of bric-a-brac, from paint tins to clothes dryers and leaf blowers, Hobday and Messias’s essay reading initially focusses on the writer’s own character – hints that they are a teacher, that they try but fail to go to the gym. Normal stuff. There is also the suggestion of tension with Steven’s parents of a sort with which many LGBTQ people will feel familiar.

Slowly, though, as the detritus is rearranged around the set and lighting and sounds suggest a world of chaos, we are drawn into a scenario where the writer and Steven meet in a world ravaged by civil war. Steven is a writer of political pamphlets, distributed amongst the underground. While this may be a conjuring of Oswald’s imagination, history has taught us the world over that in such times of social and political upheaval, queer relationships are persecuted even as the same people are most deeply involved in fights for social justice.

And so while there is a political undercurrent to Sylvan’s essay, it also becomes an awkward love story between two people who, we know, will face tragedy in the form of Steven’s death. The journey that Hobday and Messias take us on, sometimes embodying the writer, sometimes Steven, sometimes letting Steven be represented by an office swivel chair, is ultimately of two broken souls trying to heal each other as the world around them fractures.

If this were presented as a straightforward play, with the two protagonists talking directly to one another, the slightness at the heart of Sylvan’s story would be far more obvious. But under Hester Chillingworth’s direction, and with the benefit of it being told as a story from one person’s point of view, a layer of anarchic charm enhances the experience.

Continues until 21 March 2020

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Fractured essay on queer love

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