3 min

Barbarians at the gate

Shopping & Fucking explores sexual consumerism

Credit: Xtra West files

The Western Canadian premiere of British playwright Mark Ravenhill’s groundbreaking drama Shopping & Fucking is running at Performance Works on Granville Island from Nov 21 to Dec 6.

We should start with the play’s title, which publications less liberal than this one will certainly render with asterisks. An attention-getting ploy, or does it serve a nobler purpose?

“Both,” says co-director Del Surjik, Artistic Director of Pi Theatre, which is co-producing the show with Ruby Slippers. “I joke that I don’t read scripts anymore, I just pick ’em by title. Seriously, I think [the title] delivers candour. It inherently promises an unwavering gaze-that nothing will be glossed over. We don’t put a language warning on the production as that’s taken care of by the title, although we do warn that it has ‘explicit content.'”

“Explicit content” is right. One of the play’s characters is a 14-year-old rent boy who longs to be fucked up the ass with a knife.

It was this kind of brutality that repelled many critics when the play premiered in London in 1996. “The Barbarians are not only at the gates, they have moved out of their ghettos on the fringe and into the West End,” wrote the Daily Telegraph. But other critics were able to appreciate the play’s true achievement-namely, its blackly humorous exploration of how post-Thatcher consumer culture has made money the defining objective of our lives, reducing even intimate personal relationships to the level of transactions.

Since its London premiere, the play has had more than 30 productions worldwide, including lengthy and acclaimed runs in New York and Russia, and is now regarded as one of the seminal plays of the last decade.

The Shopping & Fucking characters are a disinherited and demoralized bunch. Robbie and Lulu are a young couple who live with and serve (in return for financial sustenance) the drug- and sex-addicted Mark. Mark’s lifestyle is catching up with his wallet, forcing Robbie and Lulu to fend for themselves.

Lulu gets a job with Brian, a money-crazed, philosophy-waxing drug distributor. Rounding out the group is Mark’s current fixation, the rent boy Gary, whose proclivities would make even the stars of the show Kink flinch.

The show features a high-powered cast, with established actors Dean Paul Gibson, Robert Moloney and Tom Scholte joined by the fresh talents of Anna Cummer and Anthony Johnston.

Despite the play’s shock-value aspects, it carries, at its core, a deeply moral message, insists Ruby Slippers Artistic Director Diane Brown, who is co-directing the play with Surjik. “Interestingly, what emerges from the rubble of this searing and shocking satire is a strong sense of morality and humanity through an aching awareness of its loss within our culture,” she says.

“The play mercilessly attacks a value system, a way of life in the modern Western world, to expose our helplessness and vacuity in the face of over-consumerism and objectification.”

Surjik starts to sound like an old-fashioned preacher as he explains Shopping & Fucking’s message. “The play tackles, among other things, the task of trying to define your humanity, to be human as it were, in a world where humans are themselves violently and voluntarily consumed. With potato chips, brutality and pornography as this 20-something generation’s steady diet, how can enlightenment, wisdom, political participation, socially acceptable behaviour or even a thread of self-esteem be the result?”

Some have trashed the play as a gallery of harmful gay stereotypes. Surjik emphatically disagrees: “Actually, it shows a maturation in the presentation of gay characters and lifestyles in theatre. That the primary reason for having gay characters is less about exposing them to the mainstream, but more about examining the truth of their lives without the ‘canonization’ that tends to accompany ‘issue’ plays. ‘Post-gay’ is a description I’ve heard bandied about. As far as stereotypes? I don’t see any stereotypes in our production. Come to our show and let me know if you see stereotypes.”

So is Shopping & Fucking the kind of play that can wake Vancouver audiences up from their well-documented complacency? “It has that potential,” says Surjik. “The first step is getting their attention, and we can sometimes, unfortunately, end up preaching to the converted or we may end up opening eyes. It is difficult to say what quality of experience is necessary to tip someone across a threshold of awareness. Thankfully, that has always been one of the strengths of theatre as a medium-the potential power of its impact in live performance on a group of citizens gathered together in a social context.”

But he does add this warning: “Don’t bring anyone who is easily offended. We don’t want our patrons disturbed by misguided individuals, who for some unknown reason thought they were coming to something safe and mainstream, clattering about as they gather their belongings in an attempt to flee the theatre and their own fear of clarity.”


Nov 21-Dec 6.

Performance Works.

1218 Cartwright St, Granville Island.