A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Okay, so you had to be there. And a man. And from the fifties.

We saw A Funny Thing last night at Her Majesty’s theatre. A musical about a Roman slave who has to match-make the hero and heroine to gain his freedom. I had problems.

So I get that it’s high farce, and camp as hell and in the first couple of minutes they even sing morals tomorrow, comedy tonight. But while I could kind of see the alternate universe where most of the audience was laughing, I just felt a bit horrified.

It wasn’t something I could just set aside, or lighten up about.

It wasn’t about me Making a Stand for Women Everywhere, or anything so complicated. It was simply that the story I was watching unfold on-stage appalled me.

Just to get it out of the way – yes, the farce is brilliant. The different story elements build seamlessly on top of each other then resolve like a deft magic trick. The slapstick was mostly funny, the script was mostly clever, and Geoffrey Rush on stage is a revelation.

But.

All the women in the show – with one exception – are courtesans/flesh. In the opening number they were wheeled on stage in a cage, dressed in skimpy bits of hessian. As cavewomen, maybe? It didn’t bother me – I figured it was just a kind of visual gag. Haha, treating women as just flesh? LOL, no. That would be stupid and wrong.

The next time we see the women, they’re paraded out one by one for the benefit of a lowly male slave who’s convinced their pimp he’s free now and cashed up. They weren’t in hessian this time – they were in gorgeous, amazing costumes. And it was somehow worse.

I think it was worse because although it was campy and over-the-top and slapstick – it had no layer of irony or self-awareness. The women were actually being paraded across the stage as objects of desire, for the audience as well as for the characters. And the men – lowly slave, airhead hero, pimp – were evaluating them.

Um, uncomfortable.

Not to mention the eunuchs (I’d kind of rather not). Apparently if you take away a man’s balls he becomes incoherent and baby-like. A kind of idiot animal.

Of course, the courtesan the hero is in love with is the one pure courtesan on the face of the planet. She’s a virgin. She is also apparently so stupid she can’t even count.

At this point I was trying to reason with myself and I was like, “Okay, but the hero’s a virgin and an airhead, too.” Yes, myself replied. He is also the free son of a senator; she’s a courtesan who’s been sold to a man she’s never met.

So, no – watching a woman play the blonde bimbo on stage, getting laughs for explaining that the only talent she has is being lovely, wasn’t funny. It just made me sad and uncomfortable.

There’s a distinction in humour here that was in force throughout the play, so I’m going to try and define it.

Because the tone of the play is funny, it’s easy to say, “Yes, but it’s poking fun at the idea of a blonde bimbo, it’s not taking the blonde bimbo seriously.” But who’s making the joke, who’s the butt of the joke and who’s laughing at the joke?

The joke of the airhead blonde virgin never felt to me like it had a punch-line that was kind or powerful to women. I didn’t feel like it was going, “Haha, and this is what’s traditionally the ideal woman? Traditional ideals are crazy, yo!” It felt like, “Haha, women are so stupid and compliant.” And I know that makes me seem humourless – but I find the way humour obscures an issue troublesome. Because it’s really hard to define why it’s still not right, when it seems to be making fun of itself.

Maybe it’s simply the context of gender inequality. The airhead hero is funny because it’s playing against the existing/unquestioned assumption that a male hero is powerful, manly, intelligent and supreme. The airhead slave heroine is discomforting because it plays into the assumption that women are submissive desire objects. If the play itself had set up some other assumption about women for it to play against it wouldn’t have upset me in the same way.

I tried to read the kindest possible interpretation into the play, and came up with the airhead heroine as a subversive image of the feminine: When a woman is so deeply compliant that she’ll do whatever any man tells her to, she becomes somehow un-graspable. No man can have her when any man can have her. No man can ever grasp the woman as a person because she is reduced to an object.

But I just don’t think the play was being that complex.

The one woman who isn’t a prostitute is the hero’s mother. I loved the pants off Magda Szubanski’s performance! The mother is a powerful matriarch who is still a fully sexual being. I think this interpretation owes a lot to Szubanski’s performance, though, as the mother is treated in the story as a shrewish wife whose own husband can’t stand her – and finds a middle-aged woman’s sexual desires off-putting.

I enjoyed the second half of the show. I’d become a bit numb to the sexual politics and the farcical elements of the play started to really pay off. Also, there’s an excellent piece of cross-dressing by the head male slave of the hero’s household.

I honestly don’t understand why this play has been revived without a single speck of self-awareness.

I can think of so many interesting ways it could be subverted, the most obvious being a gender-swap version – parading men across the stage to be assessed by the women. Three women singing about how nice it is to have a male servant around to ogle when he bends over would at best be confronting and at worst vaguely refreshing. Three men singing about ogling the female servants they’re going to be sexually assaulting later on is just yuck.

The only reason I can think of to revive this naïve performance is as a celebration of cultural heritage. Like watching a movie from the 60s, but it’s a play. But that got me thinking – there are parts of our cultural heritage that just don’t beg reviving. If this play had been about white masters and black slaves, I just don’t think any amount of humour would cover up how deeply wrong it is.

The only way that play could be revived would be to have the black slaves prove some supremacy over their white masters, in a subversive commentary on the original play.

Our airhead virgin heroine? Well, she got the guy in the end, I guess. Woo women!

Comments 3 Responses

  1. Merrian

    Not to forget the slut shaming/rape culture either – to be the heroine she has to be the only non-raped girl in the room. Thanks for sharing your response to this play. I think I remember that people had records of the original musical when I was a kid

  2. bleu

    Oh dear. Well, at least I know that this is something I am never going to watch.
    “Three women singing about how nice it is to have a male servant around to ogle when he bends over would at best be confronting and at worst vaguely refreshing. Three men singing about ogling the female servants they’re going to be sexually assaulting later on is just yuck.”
    This is disconcertening in itself, isn’t it?
    I was thinking about men threatening women and women threatening men, in a scene that is very, very dark and with a dangerous feel. It worked well for the first scenario. But the second?
    I just didn’t manage to produce deep emotional fear in the guy as opposed to rational fear.
    Also I noticed, that in films often have to fire a warning shot very close to the protagonist to be accepted as dangerous. It’s strange that a woman (unless we are talking about a madwoman) can do whatever she wants and still is going to be belitteled…

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