This is not a review, let’s not pretend it’s a review – this is an ACCOUNT, of a thing that happened.
It’s a New York fairytale, or, if you will, it’s a journey from innocence to experience, or maybe it’s a cautionary tale about how Jess Bellamy and I nearly ruined a great collaborative partnership before it began. It is TONI BENTLEY’S THE SURRENDER and let’s get amongst it.
So Jess and I were in New York for different reasons, and because she is a virtuous playwright who sometimes attends theatre, she picked up a copy of New York’s Time Out magazine, featuring listings of plays. As soon as she saw the blurb for Toni Bentley’s The Surrender, she emailed me – one glance at the website and I was in.
Next, we invited our friends and new collaborators Ira Gamerman and Siobhan O’Loughlin to join us at ‘the anal sex play’. Ira, sensing something was amiss, managed to have a prior appointment, but Siobhan, trusting naively in our good intentions, agreed enthusiastically to come along. It was only a few days later, when the tickets had been booked and there was no backing out, that Siobhan realised we had no expectations that the play would be any good – in fact, quite the opposite – in fact, that was the point.
So Saturday afternoon. New York. Falling snow. Times Square. Theatre Row. I arrive first and stand in the foyer amid a crowd of what look like Americans in the final stages of life’s journey, clustered in tour groups, in the Big Apple for a few days and keen to catch a bit of the theatrical life the city is so famous for. Aside from The Surrender, there are posters for a range of great-looking shows:
BREAKFAST WITH MUGABE: Accept… If You Dare
INTIMACY: A Comedy About Sex
NEWSICAL: A Musical (which bore a quote from the NY Daily News, whatever the fuck that is, describing it as ‘A hit with gays, straights and everyone in between!’)
and play called REHAB where the letters are spelled out in glowing red trackmarks on a black and white photo of a wrist.
At this point Siobhan hasn’t shown, and we’re wondering whether she’s calculated the pros and cons of keeping the friendship with the Australians vs seeing The Surrender and made the right decision, but then she arrives and the three of us make our way into the 150-seat auditorium with the six other audience members, all of whom are over the age of 50, and we settle down.
In my notebook is scrawled WHY IS THE SET ALL RED? WHY IS ANYONE ELSE HERE?
The usher tells us to turn off our phones and ‘unwrap all lozenges’ before the show starts, which already made me smirk. This was bad, we were in the third row and there was no-one in between us and the stage, and I was already on the verge of giggling. And then the lights out and then our performer, Laurie Campbell, strolls out on stage in a black silk dressing gown, a bustier and high heels, and opens with the lines: ‘I once loved a man so much that I stopped existing. No me, only him.’
Without any preamble, she launches into an explanation of how sex between equals is futile – equality can’t go anywhere. She’s tried sex lying on her side once or twice: it’s no good. Just no good. Forget about it. One person has to be on top, and that person is in charge. And then she turns to meet our eyes and says while wiggling her eyebrows like a crazy person, ‘But my journey was not from top to bottom, but from bottom… to BOTTOM.’
At this point I notice Siobhan is having some kind of seizure next to me and Jess is making weird tiny huffing noises, and for a second I think they’re both having medical emergencies, but without doubt I look no better – I’m stifling laughter by desperately biting my own face. I know for a fact that Laurie Campbell can see us shaking with silent mirth two metres away from her, but professional that she is, she merely gives me a quick glance that spells death and then refuses to meet my eyes for the rest of the show.
Now she proceeds to unfold her main thesis – she is going to tell us about ‘the joy that lies on the other side of convention’ through her journey into the realm of having a lot of buttsex. With the benefit of hindsight – ‘or should I say, BEHIND-SIGHT’ (more eyebrow waggling) she will convince us all to ENTER THE EXIT: PARADISE AWAITS.
So the story starts with Toni Bentley as a young ballerina in search of spirituality. She is raised an atheist, but has some religious pangs, which she transfers into her dance career. ‘My pink point shoes became my fetishistic ally – my crown of thorns.’ (metaphor) Then at some stage she gets into reading and falls in love with Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and SOARING KIRKEGAARD (sensually rubs her own neck).
In case I haven’t made it clear, Toni Bentley’s script is so wildly turgid and overblown that she cannot say a single thing without stapling a really awkward adjective or a surreal metaphor to it. On top of that, the director has made the choice to hit every line with so much forced affect that Laurie spends the whole play desperately mugging at the audience to make sure we don’t miss any of the incredibly unsubtle subtext. When she says the line, ‘Fidelity will render Casanova’s cane… limp, and Cleopatra’s Nile… dry,’ she holds up a cane to represent a wang and lets it flop forward as if it has lost its erection, because Theatre. When she explains that she was having RELENTLESSLY SAFE SEX and that she became the Queen of Condoms, she puts on a sash made of a strip of condoms, because Condom Queen.
Somebody is responsible for this play being produced and tickets being sold in return for actual money. Whoever that person is, I want to meet them and ask them questions.
Anyway, the young ballerina Toni meets a man and enters the world of sex (‘He had big hands and handled me like a piece of meat… PRIME’). It doesn’t work out, and after they divorce, she coerces an unfortunate masseuse into having sex with her at the risk of losing his job (‘Over the next few hours I learned that his tongue held the same magical current as his hands’). She discovers more about her own sexuality and while in a way it’s beautiful to track her taking ownership of her sexual self, at the same time it’s fucking grating because she is overwhelmingly narcissistic (‘I was a mythic goddess, coming for all womankind’).
At this stage in my notebook is scrawled a quote which I have forgotten the context for: ‘There were plenty of discarded bodies in the moat around my castle.’
Anyway she goes through discovering threesomes, and explains it in really confusing logistical detail that leaves you unsure of which person was inserting what into whom, but whatever – at that point I was distracted by the soundtrack, which was a mixture of Leonard Cohen and sexy muzak that sounded like an elevator stuck between floors.
I tuned back in again when she described a particularly wild encounter with a man where he stuck his dick into her ‘vertical mail slot’. And then she pauses and says, ‘And I mean, my actual vertical mail slot. He stood outside my front door with his penis poking through my mail slot and I knelt in my front corridor and sucked it.’ And I just thought, why? Maybe I’m missing some kind of exciting door-fucking kinkiness, but to me that seems like acting out the fantasy no-one’s had or ever wants.
BUT THEN: I learned something! As Toni explains that whenever she is preparing for sex she puts makeup on her face, and then ‘on my lower face… my real face’, and I was like, do girls usually put lipstick on their clit? Is that a real thing? Maybe I’m an ignorant dude and I’ve just never noticed that dames is always painting up their vulvz? But according to Jess and Siobhan: Not A Thing. So, now you know.
Toni, Toni, Toni. I really wasn’t sure about writing this blog post, because I feel quite confident that Toni Bentley is going to read it, and her feelings are going to be hurt. But then I thought, dammit Toni, that ticket cost me $50 USD, and I don’t even have a job, plus you got an incomprehensibly good review in an actual newspaper, so you can deal with it. But also, I’m not actually pissed at you – you needed a good editor, or maybe a therapist, or maybe just someone to talk with you in real terms about what was and what wasn’t right to share under the banner of ’empowerment’. But then, who am I to tell you how to do female empowerment?
These are real conversations we can have, Toni: get at me.
Okay so now we get to the core of the play: our narrator meets a man who has anal sex with her, that is his thing, and she’s into it, and now the play stops being even slightly about anything that isn’t buttsex. As Toni puts it, ‘the impossible had come to pass… IN MY ASS.’
I can’t even tell how I’m supposed to feel about lines like this.
So Toni ‘shifts into being a conduit for a pleasure greater than myself’ and so on, this unrelenting stream of not-even-euphemisms for sodomy and her slightly hysterical exclamations about how it was the best thing that ever happened to her. Over and over again. There’s an ill-advised science demonstration with diagrams about how the rectum is actually part of the digestive tract, and even handy tips on douching (they are not that handy, but whatevs).
Anyway here’s where it gets kinda sad. Up until this point, the narrator’s colossal ego and sense of smugness about her sexual escapades kind of kept me from feeling anything for her other than eyerolling weariness. But when we shift into the dynamics of her relationship with ‘A-Man’ (yup), she opens up chasms of sadness that I can’t help but pity.
A brief laundry list:
• She raves about how he dominates her (‘finally, a man who was not afraid to fuck me in the ass’) and how crucial it is to have a dominant partner for really transportive lovemaking, and yet he comes across less like a caring dominant partner than a really selfish jerk who takes what he wants from her without really caring
• ‘When he is in my ass I regress to a very young age: I goo and gah’ – I didn’t like this line
• She waits at home for him, he determines if and when they’ll have sex, and she gets usually an hour’s notice before he comes around, which she always accedes to
• ‘If we don’t make it to the bedroom in time something always gets smashed’ – spontaneously breaking furniture during crazy passionate sex sounds great, doing it regularly sounds sorta contrived
• She shaves her pubes pre-sex while reciting a William Blake poem (‘He who binds himself unto a joy’) – no problem with William Blake, but there’s this ‘lady-body-hair is gross’ undertone throughout a lot of this piece that I find a bit meh
• She calculates how often they have ass-sex in total (298) and how frequently (once every 2.4 days) using lipstick on a mirror – strange and awkward and desperate and also unnecessarily mirror-ruining when there are piles of paper scattered around the stage
Now to give her due credit, Toni is fully aware that she is being super needy and not okay here, and this is the dark underbelly of the play – it’s her coming to terms with the fact that this relationship is not on an equal footing, and eventually she ends it. Her exit from the relationship was as cringeworthy as anything else in the play, but it was nice seeing her stand up for herself.
I guess what made me sad, though, was that the whole show felt like a celebration of a really manipulative, abusive relationship. The sex didn’t sound very hot (I don’t have much of an opinion on anal sex, but anything where ‘negotiation’ and ‘consent’ are dismissed as vanilla is probably not my bag) and the end lesson was something like ‘anal sex is not for me’ rather than ‘maybe ass-sex can be just one part of a wholesome, fulfilling, adult relationship, rather than the single and only defining feature?’
Still, to give her her due, Toni saved up the three best lines in the whole play for the epilogue. After the break-up, she explains that ‘I felt like a pelican…’ (bated breath waiting to see where this might go) ‘…trying to extract itself from an oil spill.’
On future anal sex: ‘I never let anyone else into my sacred backyard… what was once hallowed ground, now a tunnel of despair… filled with ghosts.’
HOT TIP FOR ASPIRING PLAYWRIGHTS: Never describe your asshole as a tunnel of despair filled with ghosts.
Finally, leaving us on an inspiring upbeat note, Toni tells us, ‘I had taken my ass back. He doesn’t live there any more. I live there now.’ And then slips off her robe, moons the audience for a long, awful moment, and then black-out.
And then back onstage for a curtain call, during which she maintains her poise with superb grace and only once shoots me a withering, contemptuous glance.
The End. No Moral.