'Men in The Cities' review or 'How to connect the dots?'

Men in The Cities, Chris Goode

I’ve just read 'Men in the Cities' for the first time and I’m feeling shell shocked. I have never seen it in the theatre and it’s pretty amazing to have this chance to experience it for the first time on my own, at home, with my own life and the lives of those around me and outside my window, creeping in and nudging my thoughts and dislodging and re-aligning my reaction to this extraordinary play.

What is incredible is how enclosed I now feel in the world of Chris Goode’s making and how all those little breezes of life and thoughts and hopes and fears and souls have quietly gathered around me, a real physical presence that is circling around me. It feels very physical – so physical that I might as well be sitting in theatre with the lights down, shocked and silent and trying to gather my thoughts in the dark.

What a sad play. What a generous play. What an honest and thoughtful and quiet play. I noticed with some shock, very late in, that the sound effect I had just read – ‘The sound of traffic and of the people’ – was, in all probability, the very first ‘extra’ sound effect included in this work. Otherwise, this is one of the most still and contained plays I have ever come across. It is a bit like watching a beautiful, grotesque tapestry – crammed full of tiny images and colours and half people that you can’t quite make out – being painstakingly created in front of you, with not a word spoken or breath exhaled.

Reading this piece on my own, the first thing that struck me was how the writing is so gentle yet also so cruel. There is so much empathy seeping through this piece but so much fear and loneliness too. We get close to Goode’s characters but we never quite get to touch them or really hear them or feel them. It makes a lot of sense that the whole thing is written from the outside, as a narrative. It feels a bit like walking through a throng of people, only all of them are blind or – it is like the whole world has frozen along with the people in it and there you are, standing in front of them and waving madly in front of their frozen eyes but the only thing you can see or feel is the smoky mist that wafts out from your mouth, every time you breath or speak or scream.

I love how Chris is so completely inside this piece but also somehow removed. As a character, he appears in the script on just a few occasions, but the way that Chris has constructed this play means that, although you only see him briefly – chatting with his friends, kissing his lover or talking to his dad – you can feel him hovering behind the whole thing. It is Chris’ weird and removed presence in ‘Cities’ that makes it feel so immediate but also so alien. It is Chris’ weird distance from these characters, whose very centre he seems to reach so easily, that makes this piece just a little bit hopeful but deeply sad too.  

All those possibilities of connection. All the fleeting cross-overs between this character and that. An old man stares outside and sees a young lad ride past in a bicycle. Another old man seems able to share his darkest thoughts only with a horrible broken doll. An angry ten year old boy laughs and finds some sort of meaning only when he is lost in the big city, staring at harsh naked photos that are not meant for him. Another man curls up with his lover one morning, the morning that he knows he will commit suicide. The only thing that seems to connect these people, the tiny thread that ties these lives together is a shocking and unfathomable news item, in which two crazed men have butchered to death one British soldier, speaking of a battle that is not theirs’ to fight, signing up for a war that they are not really part of.

The loneliness that stalks this piece is hard to stomach. After reading this play, I went and sat at my window and looked at the people walking on the streets below. I saw an old man in the garden beneath me and I heard a horrible harsh clanging sound. The old man kept lifting up a massive mallet that looked far too heavy for him to handle. At first, I thought he was re-shaping metal, perhaps making something beautiful, but it turned out he was bringing that great mallet down in order to cut through great chunks of wood and create kindling, presumably for his fireplace. Every so often, this silent man – who did not see me looking at him from above - would pick up his cuttings and take them inside. Then he would come back outside and the work would begin again. All that work for a fire that will eventually destroy everything.

This isn’t a cold play - and perhaps that is so hard and demanding and impressive about ‘Men in the Cities’. Although the piece hums with melancholy - as we watch these individuals negotiate their days and their thoughts without a single person to help them through - there is something comforting about ‘Cities’. It is somehow very gentle – a bit like that bath that Ben takes, luxuriating in the heat, on the morning of the day that he will commit suicide.

Perhaps, then, the only comfort – or the real comfort – to be drawn from this play is that these distinct characters have somehow found themselves inside ‘Men in the Cities’, bundled together by someone else. There is some comfort in that thought – the thought that this play, this harmony of ideas, would not be possible without all these isolated individuals, rattling about together. I haven’t seen a lot of Chris Goode’s work but I have an inkling that this idea might be at the heart of all his plays; the idea that, no matter how lonely we might be, we might still find ourselves next to each other, either inside a play or outside of it, choosing to experience it together for one night only.


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