I Know You provides a perspective on the supposed intimacy we experience during intercourse. Performed in the Burton Taylor studio, the smallest and most intimate of the Oxford theatres, the play lures its audience into a false sense of security: no matter their proximity to the actors in this play, the audience is never any closer to truly understanding what fuels their character’s disillusionment.
This new piece of harsh yet sincere theatre, written by St. Anne’s student Sam Moore, portrays the irreverent existence of a male prostitute going by the name of Billy the Kid (Sammy Breen) and the interactions he has with an older yet timid client whom he dubs John (Benjamin Ashton). In addition to this, we learn about Kid’s dubiously cordial relationship with a previous partner, Pumpkin (Joshua Cathcart). After the uncomfortable climax of Kid’s evening with John, whose persistent claim ‘I know you’ unnerves the previously disinterested protagonist, the performance begins to delve into the tortured past and present mental health of the two characters. However, at a running time of just under an hour, the brevity of the play denies the audience an answer to Kid’s complexities, allowing him to slip out of our lives as easily as if we unknowingly passing him on a street corner.
Moore offers us a principally character driven piece, although the identity of his characters are withheld to such an extent that it is difficult to peer beyond there veneered exteriors. From the audience’s entrance into the theatre, they are met with an aggressive sense of conceit from Breen as Kid. Stood smoking idly on the corner of a blacked out building, it is evident that he does not want to be there. His temperament softens only slightly at the entrance of Ashton as John, though ultimately Kid dominates the exchange with a tone of sweet, patronising hostility. This is when Breen is at his best; the arrogant, backhanded dialogue which he has with Ashton’s John emphasises his fellow actor’s meekness. Simultaneously, his overt nastiness is suggestive of his true insecurity at being approached by an older man, who’s shy but frank politeness at times cuts through the bullish façade. I must commend the directors, Rosie Richards and Georgia Reddington, for the movement of these characters – especially during the initial undressing scene. Breen removes his denim jacket and shirt with precision, exposing his body in a provocative, rehearsed manner. Meanwhile, Ashton distractedly fumbles with his trousers and tie before lying somewhat helplessly on the bed, awaiting Breen who eventually straddles atop him. Richards manages to prevent the performance from veering into the pornographic, the heavy bass of Lana Del Ray’s cover of ‘Once Upon a Dream’ creating a lurid, club-like atmosphere. Also, the forceful kiss which Ashton gives to Breen before his departure heightens the audience’s unease whilst altering the dynamic between their characters.
I must commend the directors, Rosie Richards and Georgia Reddington, for the movement of these characters – especially during the initial undressing scene.
Whereas the development of the relationship between Kid and John is pivotal throughout the play, without question the most vibrant and enjoyable performance comes from Cathcart as Pumpkin. As soon as he steps onto the stage, nonchalantly munching on Hula-Hoops, Cathcart oozes an ease and genuineness which is immediately likeable. This nonchalance is effective for establishing the sexual history between Pumpkin and Kid, his banter occasionally having a touch of sincerity to reveal the slight animosity that undoubtedly comes with having been involved so intimately together. Cathcart delivers the most genuine performance of the three; he definitely feels the most human. His pestering Breen over his continued smoking habit, which resultantly reveals his hypocrisy as he then takes a cigarette for himself, displays his irritable naivety. Moreover, when Breen’s Kid begins experiencing a trauma, denying fervently that Ashton’s John could possibly know him, Cathcart manages to present a measured sympathy of a friend, whilst maintaining the jaded distance of a partner who has been assumedly forced away by these throws of emotion in the past.
I took some issue with Kid’s sudden outbursts. Whereas it is impossible to comment on whether his intense discomfort was realistic, given the ambiguity surrounding the nature of his mental health, whenever Breen performed these scenes of heightened emotionality he became perhaps overly theatrical, comparative to his very controlled and naturalistic performance elsewhere in the play. Furthermore, throughout I Know You, the title is repeatedly referenced in the dialogue, such that the phrase becomes somewhat of a mantra. This is successful in displaying to the audience the immense irony of the claim, as ultimately the characters cannot truly know one another. However, I felt that as the words were repeated. I became increasingly aware that I was watching a play. Moore redeems this, I feel, with a pair of fantastic monologues delivered by Kid and John. Of the two, Ashton’s darkly comic retelling of John’s contemplation of suicide hogs the limelight. His maintained awkward levity unearths his character’s terrifying instability, alongside the haunting realisation of John’s perpetually aimless existence which has led him to his unconventional relationship with a younger prostitute: this felt to me light the climax of the performance.
I took some issue with Kid’s sudden outbursts.
I should also congratulate the work of the set designer, Becky Leniham, and the lighting designer, Seb Dows-Miller, for managing to convey with stark minimalism the metropolitan nightmare which is Kid’s lifestyle. The city street on which the play begins is represented by two blacked-out wooden boards, arranged at a right angle to place Breen fittingly on the street corner. This set piece is then rotated to reveal Kid’s bedroom, containing a double bed, a bedside table and a scattering of additional props. The attention to detail here is remarkable; the bottle of vodka placed beside a bottle of mouthwash speaks volumes. Moreover, the use of the pulsating, neon lights during the scene transitions heightens the sense of defiant youth, attempting to blind us from the true squalor with which we are presented.
It might be surprising to hear that I Know You left me feeling somewhat disappointed; however, this was not a fault of the play but a strength. It is frustrating that Kid persists with his indifferent pretence and that the characters and the audience alike leave without uncovering the source of suffering. This is, of course, the reality of life and relationships: there are some people who we can never truly know.