This long overdue conversation about the relationship between teenage boys and porn doesn't go deep enough
“We acknowledge the work raises many issues, and not all can be explored in a one-hour performance,” reads the playbill that accompanies Malthouse’s Gonzo. It’s a necessary admission to yield when it comes to exploring an issue as complex and difficult to contextualise as porn, and the effects it has on the human psyche. Performed by Ari Long, Jack Palit, Sam Salem and Sol Rumble, Gonzo is a work created by The St Martins Youth Arts Centre, an organisation that creates theatre for adult audiences, but created by and featuring children. Their goal for Gonzo: to attempt to “pull back the covers on teenage boys and porn” by offering an hour-long discussion between four teenagers on their lives, the world they live in and their relationship with adult tube sites.
For many audience members (the play is rated R18+), our introductions to porn came from hand-me-down magazines from elder peers shared in a pass-the-parcel type fashion throughout the schoolyard. Nowadays, the proliferation of flesh and penetrative acts are much more accessible. A much wider spectrum of human sexuality – from the tamest of kinks to the most extreme of fetishes – are reachable with a click, a swipe or a curious Google search. For better or worse, ratings and restrictions have less power than ever on the viewer. On the internet, no-one validates, let alone cares, if the check-box you select says you were born in 2002 or 1982.
In creating Gonzo, the makers anonymously surveyed porn-viewing adolescents – and this forms the basis of the discussion between the four teenagers. They engage in trivial bus stop fodder together before being individually cast into the dark to recite their (and other teenagers’) relationships with the XXX. Beginning with a backdrop of exposed breasts bouncing to the tune of Frankie Valli’s ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off You’, the play sets up an ongoing juxtaposition between the harmless, explorative nature of youth in a public setting and the solipsistic sexual awakening that takes place behind drawn curtains (or in these instances, when parents have gone to the shops).
The inexperience of the cast is inescapable. While some lenience must be given to a quartet of high school boys, Clare Watson’s direction is ultimately distracting and disempowering. The group stammer and restart lines more often than not, while grappling uncomfortably with complex issues such as the politicisation of transgender people, slut shaming and sex work. The dismissal of live readings in favour of pre-recorded confessions of online habits diminish their effect, while the play-by-play recounts of the viral goreporn of yesteryear (2 Girls, 1 Cup and Mr. Hands – please do not look these up at work, or ever) seem superfluous and needlessly tangential at best.
The late appearance of Gala Vanting – a real-life sex worker and film director – allows the group to ham-fistedly live out their preconceived hypothetical of an open forum with a member of the adult industry. But the awkward scripting, uneasy delivery and lack of depth within the conversation against the trench of philosophical ideologies brought forward throughout the hour is frustrating.
The boys and those they represent are, for the most part, left nameless, and their questions unanswered. What effects does the teenage relationship with porn have on their sex and love lives? Does porn skew our perceptions of the opposite sex? Can the for-female revolution in the contemporary porn industry counteract the misogynistic, degrading and male pleasure-centric dogma that has been ingrained within society? The play begins the conversation to ask these questions – but it offers absolutely no approach to finding the answers. While admitting that not all aspects of the conversation can be explored in a one-hour performance, you’d hope that they’d at least scratch the surface. Gonzo simply tells us what we already know – that teenage boys watch porn. It’s not exactly groundbreaking theatre.