Most will be able to relate to how music can provide an escape from reality, shutting out the rest of the world while you live in the music. For the protagonist of Really Want to Hurt Me, music is a way to evade the bullying that is synonymous with his school life. He finds himself unable to fit in with the boys, their love for football and is mocked for spending time with girls. The protagonist escapes into a world of 80s classics and Top of the Pops to distract himself from the daily certainty that he’ll be hit, often uncertain of which direction the punch will be coming from this time around. Ben SantaMaria’s Really Want to Hurt Me, which premiered at The Bike Shed Theatre on Thursday 25th January, is an honest and moving portrait of navigating high school in the 1980s as a closeted gay teenager with no sense of belonging.
The performer of this one-man show, Ryan Price, worked with SantaMaria’s beautifully crafted dialogue to recreate the stereotypical awkwardness of a teenage boy in a raw and powerful performance. At the centre of this play is the protagonist’s difficulty in understanding his sexuality, and the abuse he fears and suffers because of it. This portrait of a teenage boy with an unstable idea of his identity is well characterised by the uncertainty in his words, regularly backtracking on what he’s said, and being concerned that the audience will judge his actions. Ryan Price’s performance was riveting, his body language strongly punctuating this awkwardness. The way that Price mouths the word ‘gay’, for example, when referring to a gay friend, shows that despite realising that he’s gay himself, he still sees it as a negative thing. Ironically, the protagonist considers the presence of a thought police in his society, akin to that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, yet he doesn’t seem to recognise that this ‘thought police’ are forming his own views on homosexuality and masculinity. The representation of the masculine stereotypes to which boys must conform, like playing football, are sadly still familiar to a present-day audience. The play reminds us that even though we are no longer in an era of Culture Club and Tears for Fears, we may still be in an era where people cannot always be true to themselves.
The Bike Shed Theatre was the perfect space for this performance because the cosy space augmented the intimacy of the protagonist’s words. This closeness must have left Price with the feeling that there was nowhere to hide, but this was massively to the play’s advantage. His performance felt vulnerable, engaging the audience in such a way that it seemed like he was genuinely confiding in you. This level of trust made the moments where Price distanced himself from the audience more poignant. For example, he faced the wall rather than the audience when recounting his suicide attempt, suggesting the pain of reliving such memories. Despite the difficult subject matter of much of the play, there were still elements of humour, created by the protagonist’s naivety and blunt honesty. The natural way that Price dealt with these moments meant that the audience were generous with their laughs.
It says much for SantaMaria’s writing that the audience became emotionally invested in the protagonist’s story and felt convinced in the plot without the use of other actors or extensive props. The strong dialogue and direction meant that the people in the protagonist’s life felt as real as him, despite never appearing on the stage. The protagonist recreated their voices in his anecdotes, and further characterised them through altering his stance when enacting their words. For instance, Price stood on a stool when imitating his ‘giant’ of a stepfather. However, some elements of the direction were less successful. The physical theatre sequences, which were used to break up the stages of the protagonist’s story, felt slightly awkward and forced. However, this awkwardness may have been deliberately in fitting with the protagonist’s general demeanour. The dialogue did well to develop the events of the protagonist’s life with a clear progression, which is often difficult to achieve in a monologue play.
The incredibly minimal set contributed to the power of the piece because it allowed for all of the attention to be focused on Price. The few props used were ingeniously integrated in many situations to add some texture to the world created by SantaMaria’s words. Lighting was also skilfully used to deepen the feel of the play without distracting from the main action. When the protagonist listened to music, the shift from white to coloured lighting deepened the impression that music helped to transport him away from reality.
The sensitive themes of Really Want to Hurt Me certainly do not make it an easy piece to approach, but Ben SantaMaria’s talented writing and Ryan Price’s performance made it an incredibly moving and convincing piece of theatre. Despite set thirty years ago, the themes of the play are still relevant for a modern audience. Our engrossment in Price’s performance meant it felt like we had lived through school alongside him, and were left hoping that, in the future, he would continue to gain more understanding and acceptance of himself.
– Katrina Bennett
Featured image source: https://www.bikeshedtheatre.co.uk/shows/really-want-to-hurt-me/