Trainers review – a messy brush with Montaigne

Gate theatre, London
Sylvan Oswald gives a dystopian twist to the French essayist’s ideas on borders to explore modern gender politics

This show is almost as impenetrable as its full title: Trainers, Or, the Brutal Unpleasant Atmosphere of This Most Disagreeable Season: A Theatrical Essay. An attempt at crossing a rebellious first-person essay with a work of war-torn speculative fiction, this queer, hazy piece is bursting with ideas, but doesn’t go the distance to help its audience understand them. It feels like a first draft.

Written by Sylvan Oswald, Trainers is inspired by an essay by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne and his relationship with Étienne de La Boétie. It plays with the ideas of borders in terms of gender, form and literary structure, but the text’s attempts to break boundaries come at the cost of it being too opaque. The language veers between deeply confessional, academic, and loosely candid, and the tone is frustratingly restless.

Nicki Hobday and Nando Messias.
Strength, activism and longing … Nicki Hobday and Nando Messias. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

In the near future, or perhaps an alternate present, actors Nicki Hobday and Nando Messias are nameless characters who split the voice of the absent essay writer between them. The story is loosely framed around the writer’s relationship with a revolutionary, and there’s a probing sense of the politics of their society invading the possibility of their love. Their world is plagued by incurable sickness, dangerous borders and a “second civil war”, though what exactly the threat is – other than a generic capitalist hegemony – is unclear. Themes of physical strength, activism and longing emerge from a digressional text.

Haphazardly directed by Hester Chillingworth, the action underlining the text feels purposeless. Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck Cohen’s design has the white end-on stage filled with objects as if from a car boot sale, which the actors form into clumsy shapeshifting barricades. There are moments of beautiful imagery, but a lack of connection between image and meaning. While it is evident that a lot of queer theory and big ideas have been consulted during the process of making this show, disappointingly little has been clearly conveyed in the end result.

At the Gate theatre, London, until 21 March.


Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

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