Picture the traditional macho guy film. It’s full of men – of course – jacked and a bit cross, looking for an outlet to channel their aggression. Arnold Schwarzenegger is there, or maybe Sylvester Stallone, drenched in sweat. They’re at a boxing gym, or a gun range, or gripping a AK-47 in a darkened forest. The air feels explosive, taut with impending violence.
It’s no secret that masculinity and violence are entangled bedfellows, both on-screen and off, and it is in this historic overlap that new physical theatre and circus show Stuntman sits. Described cheerfully by one of its co-devisers and stars David Banks as a show for anyone who has “ever enjoyed an action movie, and felt a bit weird about it,” Stuntman is a gorgeous and dynamic two-hander that melds larger-than-life stunt set pieces with personal narratives from Banks and his co-star Sadiq Ali.
“We were really big fans of The Godfather films when we were little,” Banks says, looking back on his childhood with his brother. “I wanted to be in them, but he wanted to be Michael Corleone. So it’s about how we receive these mediums, and how we try and perpetuate them. Is it a cathartic outlet, or is it an inspiration?”
Banks grew up on such films, and in what he describes as an environment surrounded by violence; learning to box from a young age and losing various family members to the prison system. Through Stuntman, he is keen to trouble this direct correlation between masculinity, class, and violence, exploring the ways in which there is space for vulnerability, tenderness and even queerness in these narratives. “If you look at the history of action films, you’ve got John Wick, Rambo, Arnie and Sylvester Stallone…they’re an orientation away from being gay icons,” Banks says.
Stuntman, photo by Brian Hartley
For Ali (returning to Summerhall after a jaw-dropping performance in The Chosen Haram last year), Stuntman is also a space to trouble ideas of masculinity as a cisgender, heterosexual mode of being, examining his own implication in these spaces, and how his queer identity subverts them. “When I came on board, David gave all these references of action films and heroes and I was just like, ‘who are these people? What film, what name?’” he laughs. Ali’s own personal memories flood the show – much like Banks, he grew up on a council estate where homophobia and racism were rife – giving the violence he grew up with serious consideration before dissipating its power with humour.
“I share some stories about putting on this mask of masculinity, quite serious stories that make the audience go, ‘huh’,” Ali explains. “And then I start this absurdist self-inflicted gay-bashing: I get set on fire and get to have the funeral of my dreams, where drag queens lower me into the floor and Barack Obama and Meryl Streep are there.” He laughs again. “So we start with something from a real place and then we get to get carried away and go, ‘What could that look like?’. It’s a good way to talk about real things that we think don’t happen anymore.”
“It’s like when someone tells a really sad story in the pub and someone makes a joke to break the ice,” Banks adds. “Which is a really good analogy for masculinity.” It is difficult to approach such a heavy topic with warmth and vitality, but for Banks and Ali, the only way to approach the rigid confines of masculinity is to subvert it with softness and humour. It’s a stunning showcase, not just for its two stars, but for the ways in which we allow ourselves to approach difficult, often taboo subjects. Sometimes, as Ali says, the ridiculousness is both medium and message. “I get a dance solo in the middle of the show,” he explains eagerly. “And without saying it's my Billy Elliot moment, it is definitely my Billy Elliot moment.”