Thursday, 24 May 2012

Legs 11

It’s been almost 24 hours since I watched Tom Marshman’s one-man show Legs 11 at Arnolfini, part of Mayfest 2012. And still I don’t know what the point of it was. I thought that if I left Legs 11 for a while, I might think more kindly about it. Or if I kept going over it, I might suddenly realise why it had been put on. But nope, I’ve got nothing.

Legs 11 is Tom’s performance piece about his relationship with his own legs. Having read the promotional material beforehand, I’d believed this to be a piece about a man who had undergone enormously invasive surgery to his legs, or who maybe suffered with a disability to his legs.

The blurb on the flyer says: “The personality of my legs is courageous. This is a classic story of triumph against adversity, and this story is yet to reach its happy ending.” Huh? What I learned about Tom’s legs in this very long hour was that they are about 40 years old, they’ve had varicose veins, and they didn’t win a tights competition marketed at women. So what?!

Legs 11 has no direction, no purpose and no narrative. It is simply a self-indulgent excuse for a man to claim funding (and funding he has, from the National Lottery through Arts Council England) in order to satisfy his ego and put on a show about himself, and which benefits nobody else. There are so many performers out there, talented ones with actual stories to tell, causes to highlight and messages to share, that it annoys the hell out of me to see self-indulgence like Legs 11 not only take up theatre space, but also receive valuable funding to do it.

I’ve seen one-man shows about the protagonists before. Ones where the characters really have triumphed against adversity, such as Mayday Mayday – when actor Tristan Sturrock created a genuinely moving and powerful piece about having to learn to walk again after breaking his neck; or Prima Doona – when comedian Doon MacKichan describes the break-up of her marriage and the subsequent awful discovery that her child has cancer. Both Tristan and Doon performed in a self-deprecating, humble and generous manner. Clearly one-man shows about a personal story don’t need to be self-serving and vapid. Nor do they need to scream “Look at me, everybody! No really, look at me! Me!” Sadly, Tom’s show does all of those things.

From the atmosphere in the (uncrowded) Arnolfini theatre, it seemed that most of my fellow audience members felt likewise.

* This article was amended on May 28


  1. It's actually called Called 'Legs 11' (as referenced in the eleven actions throughout the show) and I thought it was a really nice piece. Not all art has to come from a dark place.

  2. I found the show moving - it has integrity and it is funny. I'd argue that it has a very noble purpose: it challenges mainstream ideas of beauty, whilst acknowledging how important it is to celebrate beauty.
    I also felt the complete opposite about the autobiographical performance style: it is generous and relevant (and therefore beneficial) to many people, whose conditions are clumsily handled by conventional media: people are either made into freak shows (Embarrassing Bodies) or get caught up in the rhetoric of tabloid victimhood. Hell, it's relevant to anyone who feels that they have an unsightly body. I felt lovely afterwards, as did a lot of the people I saw it with: we were elated.
    Whether you liked the performance or not, I feel an unfair criticism is that it is onanistic (your use of that sexual word in this context says more about where you're coming from really - in really poor taste - borderline homophobic even); you must have misunderstood his sense of humour, which is flirtatious, dark and really, really inclusive.
    Oh, and the narrative is in the journey his legs have gone on since his childhood to present day. Narrative sub-text: self-image as a gay body, in a world that is still struggling to understand homosexual/transgender beauty.

  3. It was a critical response, to your critical response. You have a comments box, which is for, presumably, engaging in critical commentary. It was not spam, and it wasn't childish. I challenge you to post it, and respond, critically, rather than on twitter.

  4. Woah, Jen, sorry for the delay in posting your comments but I was out: I'm not at my computer 24/7. Also, to be clear, my tweet that you refer to in your second comment was written before you posted your first comment - so the tweet wasn't in reference to you, but some of Tom's other friends who have messaged me. (Incidentally, I don't know Tom personally or anything about him other than what I saw on Wednesday.)

    I review a lot of theatre pieces, many I like, many I don't. But even if something is not to my personal taste (and from the promotional material, Legs 11 showed every indication of being to my taste), I try to see beyond that to think whether or not a performance is well written, well directed, well performed, well structured etc, and whether it would speak to other people, and have a wider message. Clearly, you feel it spoke to you, and I'm genuinely pleased you got something positive from Tom's show. That's great, and obviously the effect he wants to generate in his audience.

    For my to describe the show as 'onanistic' (ie self-indulgent) is not homophobic, by the way. That's a really offensive claim for you to make.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Thank you JMo, for responding. The perils of blogging I guess - dealing with the riled readers who have to go to source rather than an editor - and negotiating the fall-out of cross-pollinating social networking and cultural comment.

    I really appreciate you taking the time to defend your choice to review unfavourably; of course it is your prerogative as a blogger to write whatever you please. You did explain your opinion carefully, which is presumably why people read it to the end and replied. It's cool that you engaged people, and made them feel they wanted to communicate with you.

    I think the thing for me - and perhaps why it did upset so many people - is I was taken aback by how the review did seem to miss both the large and subtle points of the show, and I wanted to address some of the observations you made. The other thing is, and this is of course another issue of not having editorial scrutiny, is that the choice of the word 'onanism' was dodgy in this context. So although I am sad that you took offense, I felt that having been given the opportunity (thank you), I would like to point out why the term was distasteful to me.

    If the performance was by a Jewish man and you didn't like it, an insensitive criticism would be 'the only person having a gas was him', or if it were a Muslim performer 'the performance did not go off with a bang'. These jokes are not good in a context where the performer's identity is central to the piece. Likewise, in Legs 11.

    You are right, onanism does indeed carry the sense of 'self-indulgent'; but you could have said that the piece was self-indulgent. Instead you chose onanism, which is laden with connotation: it of course means male masturbation, and comes from the Biblical 'sin' of Onan, which was to waste his seed. The word carries the moral point about men not fulfilling their God-given duty to impregnate women. Even when taken in its more surface sense - male wanking - it's still powerful to use it as a derogatory comment, when describing a show whose subtext is male sexuality.

    It's just too much of a risky word to use when talking about a gay man, especially when the word's origin is in a religion that condemns homosexuality. That is why I took issue with it, and why I felt that it was borderline homophobic, whether you intended it or not.

    Another perplexing accusation of the review - perhaps inadvertently - was about Arts Council funders, who I feel are intelligent enough to allocate money to projects that they assess are worthy. They don't take money away from other projects that need it; they go on the basis of compelling applications and performers' track records. Tom Marshman is someone who they felt was addressing a marginalised subject in an innovative way, and was deserving of money. I'm not sure why you would take a swipe at the Arts Council for making a choice that was supporting diversity in the arts. God knows there isn't enough.

    So anyway. Thank you for engaging with me on this. I think it's great that you are joining the critical voices of the world, and you are obviously pressing buttons, and bravely willing to respond to the consequences of that. Good luck.

  6. I think Jen took the use of the word onanism way to seriously and exploded the context way beyond the reviewers meaning, when I read the review I thought the writer really meant solipsistic but didn't know what that meant either.

    The review is very harsh but a little more direction probably wouldn't have hurt, overall it was an interesting evening, not all art has to be about pain and suffering.

  7. I support Jen and would say "exploding beyond context" is not a disservice to the reviewer - one doesn't have to be aware of what one is saying to be insensitive, and having had an insensitivity pointed out, the person who has espoused offensive views/language is no less responsible because of a previous ignorance.

    Whatever the writer's intention, and regardless of what was seen by them in the piece, this review reads as critically clumsy, and the response to calling out of inappropriate language either disingenuous or increasingly ignorant.

    A harsh critique is not unreasonable, but casual homophobia is. In addition, the tabloid style assertion that a "non-mainstream" experience is only valid in a "triumph over tragedy" narrative is particularly unpleasant and patronising.

    Without debating if this was the intention of Legs 11, Seeking attention is not an invalid ambition for a piece, a performer or a blog writer. However, one suspects here with the protestations that "worthy" others have been somehow robbed that it reads rather hypocritical rather than theatrically critical - possibly a case of "don't feed the troll"? This post has certainly generated "a response"!! The writer may enjoy the attention, but wouldn't they not gain more by giving a rigorous critique without the use of the inflammatory, whether initially intentional or not?

  8. It has been over 24 hours since I commented on this blog, and yet my comment has failed to appear.

    Is this because the author is not on the computer 24/7?

    Well, no as they have published a new blogpost in the meanwhile.

    Is it because the writer is in the business of trying to control any criticism of themselves, whilst clumsily dishing out (probably unintentional, though no less offensive) homophobia and tabloid style attitudes such as "non-mainstream" narratives are only valid in the form of "triumph over adversity", bless 'em?

    Possibly - seeing as Jen also needed to ask before being published, and though the writer explained how the "childish" tweet was not directed at her, but looking through the twitter stream linked to this blog I noticed another tweet from @madamjmo which - though obviously in jest - may be telling: "@ayiasophia I believe everyone should be silent ALL the time. Except me, when I'm in the mood to make a little noise. But otherwise, silence"

  9. Oh, good grief, Mill Port. I didn't publish your first post because initially it went into my 'spam' folder for some reason, and then, when I did read it, it didn't make much sense. The 'Legs 11' review has had a lot of hits coming from Facebook (where I have not posted it and presume Tom has, because why would anyone else post a review of a small play on Facebook?!), so I presume the people making comments are friends of the actor and therefore somewhat biased in wanting to defend their friend's play (a natural response).

    Thanks for being so thorough and reading my tweets. However, the one you flag up to @ayiasophia is in reference to a tweet she posted about noisy builders. And nothing to do with any blog posts by me or anyone else. If you can be bothered, do click on that tweet to open it up and you can see the full tweet conversation.

    As for your claims that my use of the word 'onanism' makes me homophobic... Wow, people can really twist words to believe anything they want it to if they try hard enough, and it is EXTREMELY offensive and pathetic for you to claim this. I use the word 'onanism' in my review to mean 'self-indulgent'/ 'masturbatory', as is perfectly clear from the text surrounding it. My review is my comment on the performance I saw, and not in any way a reference to the actor's sexuality, whatever it may be.

    At no point in my review did I say that only dark narratives were a valid form of theatre, that is an interpretation one or two others have reached in the comments here. My point is that I did not feel 'Legs 11' had ANY narrative, regardless of it's apparent 11-point structure, which led nowhere and therefore does not constitute a structure. I'm all for happy stories, we need more of them.

    If you disagree with my review, that's fine. If you saw 'Legs 11' and enjoyed it or got different messages from it, that's fine. I wonder if you send such rude and offensive messages to everyone who writes a review that contradicts your own experience of something, or perhaps just when it's about a friend of yours. Maybe you should write your own review of 'Legs 11' on your own site to put across your reception of the performance? If you do, I won't later accuse you of being homophobic or sexist or racist or any other nonsense claim in your comments thread, though.

    PS - If your messages had been more polite, my reply would also have been more polite.

  10. Thanks for publishing my comments.

    I do apologise for the impolite tone of the second, it is a shame I got so angry - although I do believe my anger to be valid - but had assumed you were not publishing on the grounds of self-serving censorship as I did not realise my first comment had been withheld, as you say "because initially it went into my 'spam' folder for some reason, and then, when I did read it, it didn't make much sense."

    I think my first comment makes a lot of sense and I stand by it - that you had trouble comprehending it is not a valid reason to censor in my opinion.

    This is a tactic we hear time and again - the position of the "other" is dismissed as "not making sense". So though I accept you may take offence at the calling out of your homophobia - and I am genuinely sorry you feel offended - but I would again assert not being aware of how inappropriate the use of language at the time of making it, is no excuse once those effected by it have explained why it is offensive. Those victimised get to say how it feels for us, not you thank you very much.

    I do not wish to comment on Legs 11 as I have not seen it, and only know Tom as a friend of a friend - who pointed out this post to me. I stand by my criticism of the language used in your review - if you really do find it "hard to understand" why, then I suggest re-reading my first comment.

    Sexism, Racism "or any other nonsense" as you put it in your anti-pc/tabloid way are very very serious issues indeed - I would respectfully and politely ask you to please be mindful of this in here and in future reviews.

  11. "You may take offence at the calling out of your homophobia" - to claim I'm homophobic because I used the word 'onanism' to describe something as 'self-indulgent' is extraordinary, desperate and pathetic. Not to mention slanderous. It strikes me as desperation to find fault with my review, rather than accepting it to be my review of a play - that you admit to not having seen.

    I take sexism, racism etc extremely seriously. I'm a feminist activist. Perhaps you missed the sarcasm in my comment. What I wrote was "Maybe you should write your own review of 'Legs 11' on your own site to put across your reception of the performance? If you do, I won't later accuse you of being homophobic or sexist or racist or any other nonsense claim in your comments thread, though." You took this out of context to distort it, thereby achieving the 'tabloid' tactics you strangely accuse me of. My comment, when read in full and NOT out of context, makes it clear that for me to decide to find any of those hateful positions in a review you might write, would be as absurd as you deciding to claim my review is homophobic simply because it is negative about your friend's play.

    However, I'm genuinely sorry if you find my use of the word 'onanism' personally offensive, as clearly you do. It is not my wish to upset readers of my posts, and certainly not my wish to offend them - especially on the grounds of sexuality, gender, race, class etc etc, as these are issues I feel extremely strongly about, as you will see if you look at the general theme of this blog.

  12. PS - have looked at you twitter again. While you accuse all who disagree with you of being Tom's friends ( and therefore biased ) it looks to me as if you are fishing your own friends for sympathy, whilst exhibiting what I believe to be intended ridicule of those "daring" to criticise :

    "Am being called homophobic because I didn't think much of a play about someone's legs. That makes so much sense*. *It makes no sense."

    The homophoia we are describing is your inappropriate reference to onanism, on the grounds of the connotations that Jen eloquently laid out.

    It has nothing to do with the piece being about legs - and to paint it in such a way - essentially saying those who are standing up to your (admittedly possibly initially unintended) prejudice are somehow to be seen as ridiculous I find again to be insensitive and insulting.

  13. Thank you for your apology.

    I apologise for missing your use of sarcasm - I was greatly angered by what you wrote, and appreciate your retraction.

  14. I have amended the review to remove the word 'onanism' as it clearly being misinterpreted by a small number of people, and it is not my desire to offend anyone - even unintentionally.

  15. I followed Tom's link to this blog and I'm not sure that I've ever felt moved to comment like this before but this debate about 'onanism' and the unbridled anger displayed at any delay in JMo posting peoples responses is astonishing!

    If we all policed our language with the rigour that Jen and Mill Port seem to recommend then we should never say anything to anyone for fear of offending them. And that seems to me to be far more counterproductive to understanding each other than the use of a word like 'onanism'. I mean it's basically just posh for 'wanky' right? And that seems to be a fair critical term (in general I mean - I haven't seen Tom's show and can't attest to it's wankiness one way or another).

    And as for this rage at not getting your post uploaded as soon as you press 'Publish' - I'm sure JMo (who I don't know) has a life to lead and other things to do than hover over her inbox waiting for the next preposterously pompous email to arrive. And if she should choose to spend her online time tweeting instead of dealing with her emails then surely that's up to her?

    Take it easier - you'll live longer and make the world nicer.

  16. Hello Richard.

    I hope you are aware - or able to become aware - of the privileged position you enjoy.

    I suspect you did not have to wait over 24 hours to find your comment had still not appeared, and then have to question why is had been withheld, only then to be told it wouldn't have been allowed at all if you hadn't questioned why because "It didn't make sense".

    This is not expecting the author to be "hover(ing) over her inbox waiting".

    Meanwhile - related, and apparently derogatory, comments appeared via the twitter account linked to this blog.

    I expect you are unlikely to experience this - in fact I wouldn't be surprised if a favourable tweet appears in your honour along with the swift posting of your comment, despite your comment essentially espousing the not exactly feminist position of "calm down dear".

    It would be great if people could always anticipate the potential offence their use of language could give and only ever communicate in a respectful manner, however to portray what has been said in these comments as advocating "never saying anything to anyone for fear of offending them" is either wilfully inaccurate or a genuine misunderstanding.

    What we said was that when offence is given - whether intended or not - it is the victim's right to determine if it is real, or "fair".

    Offence was given, and an explanation was given as to why.

    When Madam J Mo understood that offence had been given the article was amended - because she does not wish to offend.

    For this I am very grateful - I would hope you can also understand why.

    The reason why it was an inappropriate word here has been explained in Jen's comment.

    "I mean it's basically just posh for 'wanky' right?"


    It "just" means wanky, in the same way "went off with a bang" would "just" mean "going well" if the critique was of a performance by a Muslim about Muslim identity - whether intended to be so or not, it is unnecessarily provocative with clumsy, or deliberately unpleasant, connotations when a variety of other words or phrases are available which would simply give the intended meaning without offence.

    This is not an unreasonable thing to ask.

    Minorities experience discrimination on a daily basis - "Take it easier - you'll live longer" is not a helpful thing to say in the face of this.

    However, speaking and writing with consideration IS a way to "make the world nicer".

    If you feel moved to make comment on something again, I hope it IS to make the world better, and not simply to knock those prepared to stand up when offensive language is used.

    It is important that we DON'T just "take it easy" around such issues - and as a feminist activist I expect Madam J Mo would agree - whether the writer or speaker is aware of the offensive nature of the language used or NOT, it IS important.

    How can explaining how offence has been caused be said to be "counterproductive" to understanding?

    It is only through expressing our own experiences that understanding CAN ever occur.

    If it really is the case you haven't experienced anything yourself directly that moved you to comment in this way before, I suggest you count yourself lucky.

    I don't care if you think I'm pompous - but I do sincerely hope you understand that many people are disrespected daily and if you experienced the half of it, I feel quite sure by your tone you would be swift to stand up to it too.

    IF your life is as easy as it sounds - I hope your do enjoy it, but I respectfully suggest you show consideration and make it a little bit nicer for those who aren't as privileged.

  17. Fair enough; I do lead a pretty blessed life all in all.

    I think the point I'm making is that showing how onanism is offensive is counterproductive to understanding because, as I read it, this is a pretty clear misinterpretation of the blogger's intention. And to be fair, the reference is pretty obscure by comparison to 'it was a gas' or 'went off like a bang'.

    I agree that language is a powerful thing and should, ideally, be used carefully. But I also think that what is being said should be given far greater importance than how it is being said and that people - even those without the gift of a rigorous intellect and a good education - should be able to express their views without the fear of being censored for causing unintentional offense.

    Absolutely let's strive for a progressive discourse but let's also be wary of one that closes down debate and ideas.

    I'm overstating the case given the example we're discussing here but I think over-sensitivity about language hinders our ability to comunicate ideas with each other (paradoxically perhaps?) and the way in which onanism was pulled up for scrutiny here smacked of that to me.

    Here is some responses to this blog and another.
    Willm be doing some tweaks on the show ready for Edinburgh next week.