Ignorance isn’t always a bad thing. I’d been too busy chatting with an old friend to read the program for Stan Won’t Dance’s Sinner. So I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that British playwright Ben Payne’s text was jumpstarted by the case of David Copeland (the Soho Bomber), who in 1999 planted explosives full of nails in clubs where blacks, Pakistanis, and gays gathered to have a good time.
Ruth Finn’s set design and Ian Scott’s lighting ought to prep any spectator for disaster. This is no bar in disarray after a riot. Dark gray chairs are not only upended but suspended flying through the air. Tables are tilted, broken, and strewn over the mirror-shiny black floor. Smoke is thick and the beams of light might be coming through a hole in a roof.
Still, my lack of information meant that I became increasingly fascinated by enigmas and apparent inconsistencies in what appeared to be an edgy pickup between two men in a bar. But when it became clear that large-scale murder, not sex, was the evening’s goal, I could look back on the earlier events and re-frame them. Which was altogether satisfying.
Payne’s idea was developed into a dance play by the author, together with Ellie Beedham (executive director of Stan Won’t Dance), and Liam Steel and Rob Tannion (artistic directors of the company, the choreographers of Sinner, and its original performers). One thing that makes the work so compelling is the way phrases and sentences, repeated over the course of the evening, slide in and out of sync with the accompanying gestures and actions (the structures and often neutral delivery reminded me a little of David Gordon’s work). The rituals and ideology—whether of seduction or calculated destruction—acquire a mechanical quality that encourages the impression of gears slipping out of alignment. Yet sequences that build into furious word-action litanies also pull down into quiet, ordinary, deceptively reassuring conversations. Steel and Tannion were both members of DV8 Physical Theatre, and the dance bouts are primarily exercises in violent contact with an erotic edge, although there’s some terrific letting-it-all hang-out craziness (after some pill-popping); “Martin” (Ben Wright taking over Tannion’s role) entices the apparently timorous “Robert” (Steel) onto the dance floor with a display of fumbly ballet, Irish step-dancing, and what-all, and the two of them cut loose in an orgy of shimmying and shaking.
The two begin with a rapid-fire stint as joint narrators. A nondescript man—neither dark nor fair, tall nor short—boards a train at a suburban station. He carries a valise. He enters a bar. He doesn’t usually do this kind of thing. Steel then assumes the role of Robert. When the taller Wright draws a chair near him and says things like “Is this your first time in here?” and “I was once in your place,” we can believe that Robert’s stylized fits of anxiety and Martin’s calming remarks have to do with patronizing a gay club. Just two working-class, unemployed blokes looking for a little action, a happy time.
But under their tough-guy jackets, these men wear T-shirts bearing large portraits of a rapt-eyed Jesus Christ. When their cell phones ring, Robert listens to the caller and says nothing, while Martin yells to be left alone. And they’re extremely protective of their black bags. We don’t need the muted ticking that sometimes replaces loud music. These men, believing themselves nobodies were—are—time bombs primed to go off. The pacing of their verbal exchanges; the subtext of the increasingly fierce grappling, hurling, tackling, and embracing; and their sudden suspicions build an increasingly ominous atmosphere.
Their casual, chummy exchange of dislikes escalates into a spewing of hatred against just about everyone. While Martin has Robert pinned to a small table and is atop the table treading around him, shoving him into new positions with one foot, they say, “kill them all” (“queers, niggers, Pakis”) and “hate gives you something to believe in.” The men reverse roles, even become victims; everything you’ve seen and heard earlier acquires nasty new significance. And, although the text gets a little heavy-handed at this point, the ending is truly horrifying. And horrifyingly believable.
The astonishing performers make you feel their heat, their fear, and their fury. You could be singed. The sweaty wrestling, the way one man reaches to cup the other’s head as he swivels him into some awkward new position, the way one’s face nestles into another’s neck for an instant both sear and shrivel the soul. The collaborators have created a brilliant simulacrum of humanity on a collision course with itself. See it and shudder.