Who's Laughing Now?

Manwatching gives an anonymous female writer a voice – via a different male comedian each day. Tom Wicker speaks to director Lucy Morrison about exploring gender expectations on stage

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Published 13 Aug 2017

Here are a few of questions: do you think you’d hear someone’s words differently, if they were read out loud by someone else? And if they were funny words, might you laugh more or less? And what if those words were written by a nameless woman, but performed by a man?

These are issues raised by the Royal Court Theatre’s fascinating show Manwatching, which is at Paines Plough's Roundabout Theatre at Summerhall. Each day of the Fringe, a different male comedian reads out a sharp, funny and frank monologue about sexual desire by an unnamed female writer. He hasn’t seen it before the moment he goes on stage.

The initial idea for Manwatching was brought to the Royal Court Theatre by the female writer, explains associate director Lucy Morrison. “The form of it was already in her head,” she says.

When she was younger, the writer, who “has quite a comic voice,” had the urge to try standup comedy. But an open mic night turned out to be “one of the worst nights of her life,” says Morrison. “It was an endless stream of men doing wank jokes. Then she got up and she had completely different material. She felt like a complete alien.”

The effect of that experience lasted. It resulted in the writer abandoning the idea of standup as a career, says Morrison, and left her with questions about how women who talk about personal subjects are viewed differently to men.

The narrative anonymity so integral to Manwatching arose because “she wanted to write something that was really, searingly honest about heterosexual desire,” says Morrison, with “some layer of protection.” And it was a chance to interrogate “the series of judgments you go through when you do that as a woman, that you don’t as a man.”

Is there a risk that the show’s approach could just affirm the idea that there are some things that women can’t say on stage? That’s not how Morrison sees it. For her, Manwatching’s anonymity liberates the power of the writing, while also making people think. “If a woman stood up to do it, people would go, ‘Oh, that’s one particular woman’s experience – she looks like this, seems like that. Judgments are made.”

In contrast, when it comes through a man’s voice, “you really ask yourself how you’re listening to it – whether you’re listening to it in a particular way,” says Morrison. “You go: ‘Yeah, maybe I do accept material like that in a different way when a man comes on stage.’” She believes that “the form makes you actively think about all of those things”.

From the start—including an earlier run at the Royal Court—it’s been important that the piece is performed by comedians rather than actors. “Having an actor doing it exposed the fact that it wasn’t rehearsed, rather than celebrating that,” reflects Morrison. “The way a comedian attacks it in the moment felt like the right thing.”

I’ve seen Manwatching a couple of times and the relationship between script and performer is an engrossingly complex, evolving one. Depending on who’s on stage, it can be joyfully harmonious or almost adversarial – marked by a raised eyebrow or a stumbled delivery. Sometimes there is an obvious, yawning gap between person and text.

It's an exposing experience for the volunteer comedians. At two points, Manwatching’s script asks the audience to consider his performance and appearance. These deliberately thought-provoking moments about how we look at performers can be uncomfortable if that particular hour hasn’t gone well. It adds to the show’s wit-wrapped sharp edges.

“It works best when the comedian opens himself up to the material and just confidently allows it to flow through him,” believes Morrison. “That’s when the communication between the writer and the comedian is one of pure trust – him really listening to her.” It’s about the rhythm rather than perfectly landing a punchline. “My favourites are when that happens,” she says.

Morrison worked “really hard” with the writer to get Manwatching’s script “as performer-proof as possible,” from extensively workshopping it early on, to only including a couple of lines per page at key stages. “We’re trying to slow him down a bit,” Morrison says. While the show has some beautifully structured jokes, “there are moments where it’s more theatre. It’s darker, deliberately not as funny.”

Morrison and the writer have focused on all of the easily overlooked (by the audience) “tiny things that really do have an impact on his performance", right down to exactly how the script is delivered into the comedian’s hands. It's interesting how much of the humour survives, sometimes in spite of the delivery. 

But the risk of things going wrong is wired into Manwatching’s DNA. “I actually find that really energising,” says Morrison. “It highlights that moment where word and act come together – when it doesn’t, it’s really obvious.” There have been a few shows, she adds, “where you think: ‘That wasn’t the right person doing it.’ But I stand by those as part of the form.”

Besides, even the script itself could differ between shows. “It’s brilliant and maddening at the same time,” Morrison says with a laugh. “Because the performer doesn’t have to learn it, it means we can change it.” The writer has been in to see the show since it opened in Edinburgh, she reveals. “She’s always working on it. She never really rests.” Morrison relishes this element of “liveness. The form allows us to do that.”

Since Manwatching first opened, has Morrison been surprised by how curious people have been about the identity of its writer? That anonymity hasn’t been “to create a kind of mystery around it,” says Morrison. “It was to give her what she needed, to be able to write it in the way she has.”

Then she smiles. “But it’s rather delicious, isn’t it, speculating?”