Part theatre, part visual art and dance performance, one-man show ‘Alpha Who?’ provides a visceral and visually fascinating exploration of masculinity and emotional vulnerability but it falls short of the expectations it sets up.
When performer Matt Franco tells us he is a man, he folds himself into a classic ‘muscle man pose’, then pauses, uncertain, and this uncertainty is understandable – we live in a time where masculinity is a highly debated concept, and rarely discussed without the word ‘toxic’ coming up. This rigid identity, where men are encouraged to supress their emotions and ‘man up’, has often been linked to the current male suicide crisis (every week 84 men in the UK commit suicide), which the play directly aims to tackle.
As Franco enters the space, carrying a human-sized canvas across his back, reciting a mantra of what men are meant to be; masculinity is immediately set up as the cross men have to bear, the weight of which Franco will spend the next hour trying to shake off.
“blocked from audience understanding by its own artistry”
Franco rejects the rules and restrictions that masculinity uses to gain its power, representing this in a split-stage moment where he portrays both a calm, composed and idealised ‘masculine’ version of himself sitting at ease on a chair in conversation with a jittery and emotional version of himself. Rejecting this posed, masculine figure, Franco dives, dances and crawls straight into the somatic chaos of the “emotional terrorism” masculinity poses. Indeed, the relationship between masculinity and emotions are the core of this piece, typified when Franco struggles to say the word “vulnerability”, utilising his entire body to force the word out. If masculinity is centred in the body, Franco certainly utilises his to its full extent.
Fairly or unfairly, one-man shows often rely on the compelling quality of the actor. Franco fulfils this brief, fully utilising his dancer’s range; moving between graceful poise to jolting, sharp movement akin to a stuck record. His performance is visceral, much like the red-splattered canvases, designed by artist Saverio Tonoli, which scatter the stage. However, the play flits between different scenes without clear delineation or connection. Although the performance delves into some fascinating topics – Franco picking up a knife to cut his own throat but instead shaving his face, a linking of male suicide with the upkeep of masculine appearance, then talking to the audience about the suicide of his father – these are quickly discarded and not brought up again. Also, while the flyer draws attention to the five characters he plays (Truthful Self, Control Freak, Laid Back Guy, Invasive Avoider and Child), the only place this character divide is clear is on the flyer itself. The theatre viewer is left slightly lost. The effect of this is a performance which ebbs and flows without a clear conclusion, and it is often easy to forget what the play’s key focus is.
Ultimately, while this performance was an emotional exercise for the performer, it remains an intellectual experience for the viewer as they must try and translate the action on stage rather than being emotionally involved in it. While Franco is clearly a talented performer, his understanding of the piece did not translate into audience understanding and the show never really explores what it meant to explore or addresses the questions raised at the start. The audience is left with a compelling final image of a silhouetted and nude Franco behind the artist canvas he walked in with. This represents both the highs and lows of this production – a visually attractive piece blocked from audience understanding by its own artistry.
Image: Saverio Tonoli