In a cocktail lounge where a live jungle rears up and licks at its edge, a tribe of Don Draper marionettes bounce, tumble, caper and whirl.
They are dressed for an evening out. Their bowties are on, their hair is precise. A shifting mass of muscular masculinity, they seamlessly morph into automatons, acrobats, straightjacketed lads. No individual movement forms independent of the group, but develops through entropic, cumulative waves of imitation and extrapolation. Progressively, and with frequent dips into the absurd, all that is enshrined in the icon of male power is undone.
A tender, ruthless evisceration of toxic masculinity by director/choreographer Shaun Parker and songwriter/vocalist Ivo Dimchev, KING has been six years in the making – six years in which #MeToo surged and traditional gender binaries broke down. It is a timely and original interrogation. It is also an elegant, sweaty study into the behavioural dynamics of male groups, and the brutish laws that perpetuate rigid gender expressions and punish the rest.
Counterpointing the mute, restless buffoons is the androgynous narrator and vocalist Dimchev, a contemporary Bulgarian performer renowned for his radical coups on theatre convention. Appearing regularly at European and Middle Eastern festivals (he’ll be in Prague, Istanbul and Belgium next month), he has in previous shows cut incisions near his eyes to weep bloody tears (I-cure) and serenaded a porcelain cat (Som Faves). Here, with a helmet of vanilla hair, a Freddie Mercury moustache, boyish shorts and languid panache, he mocks the dancing puppets with an almost maternal sorrow, our dulcet doyenne.
Singing lyrics referencing homosexual love, William Blake’s “The Tyger” and TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, Dimchev’s melancholy cabaret carries us through the show in a sequence of songs. His voice emerges as a rich, strange and gorgeous instrument. It coos, trills and purrs with an Eartha Kitt-enish coyness. Lonely but powerful, it seduces.
So enthralling is this voice, in fact, that for some long stretches I forgot about the dancers who – while highly talented and artfully directed – receded into the periphery almost like jesters in a court. Dimchev is quite clearly one for the spotlight (last year he appeared on the UK’s The X Factor) and his erotically-charged insouciance, campy charisma, and larger-than-life persona at times seems to yearn for a greater share of audience attention. When he leaves the upstage dais and sways coquettishly amid the cavorting bodies, one has the fleeting impression that the ensemble are his back-up dancers in a cut-above Eurovision contest.
Bathos is a strong component of the choreography and is where Parker triumphs most. Through physical comedy, the various tyrannies and egomanias of masculinity are deftly lampooned. The scrambling claims to power; the debilitating fear of vulnerability; the exhaustion that comes with playing one-upmanship games that never end. These are all serious topics, which thousands of gender studies essays have studiously unpacked. Here, through the comic angle of a leg or the po-faced expression of a dancer, they are deconstructed with brilliant economy. I and the girl behind me guffawed often.
Ultimately, emotional repression explodes into primitive violence. The alpha male is literally stripped naked, and the group becomes a tribe of chest-beating apes. When this alpha betrays a hint of tenderness, of autonomous thought, they turn on him. In the final few sequences, a tragic theatre emerges; affecting if at odds with the abstractness of the piece overall.
Introducing queer perspectives to the cis/het crisis of masculinity, KING entangles itself with the cultural and primal forces that shape and deform identity. In April, it will tour Lebanon, Jordan and Austria, sowing its subversions abroad.
As a postscript: one key personal enjoyment of the night was at the end of the show, when the lights went down and the audience burst into furious applause. The darkness lingered. The audience insistently clapped. When the lights at last returned to reveal the performers clasping hands in a line, the naked dancer now had his jocks on. The delay was explained.