Sex used to be the final frontier in entertainment, but these days it has been stripped, so to speak, of every last taboo. While honest portrayals of sexuality can offer insight into a particular character, simply addressing sex no longer makes a work titillating, let alone novel. So Bed, Brendan Cowell's look at several different sexual relationships over time, limits its potential from the outset. An Australian import staged by the One Year Lease touring company, Bed is a cyclical play. Cowell has constructed three sets of five scenes depicting various relationships (or, perhaps, merely relations) between Phil, the main character, and his conquests, both male and female. Additionally, the same simple set—a bed of Phil's—serves as the set for each scene.
Perhaps this is meant to shock. What will really either alienate or endear the audience to the play (directed with a solid touch by Ianthe Demos) is Phil himself, who is played by Nick Flint, the play's co-producer along with Demos. Is he a protagonist, with so much self-pity that his neediness knows no bounds? Or is he an antihero, solely out for his own hedonistic pleasure regardless of who else may get hurt along the way?
Over the course of the play, the audience is supposed to glean further information about each of these relationships and see them either strengthen or whither. Demos constantly moves the action along before any individual scene loses focus, but by the play's end these individual stories have only provided enough information to figure out what is going on, not why.
Part of the confusion, at least for me, was whether these different scenes were supposed to be occurring at the same time or in succession. Because Phil can be an absolute letch, I am not sure he is to be taken at his word when he gives clues to the progression of time. Are Phil's more innocent sexual encounters with Kane (Nico Evers-Swindell) representative of his younger years? It is my understanding that they are. If so, though, even at the outset of the play Phil is already a closed-off man on a power trip.
Also, by Phil's next relationship, with Daisy (Emma Jackson), he seems to be a full-blown sex addict. For him intimacy is about control, not connecting. When Daisy–and Jackson can be quite the commanding presence in these scenes–shows Phil a painted portrait of himself, he wants nothing to do with it. Clearly, Cowell's message is that Phil remains quite uncomfortable with himself. Though he might have no problem baring himself physically (indeed, Flint and the rest of the cast spend most of the play in various states of undress), Phil's inner emotions remain carefully concealed.
To an extent, Cowell does peel away the layers in the scenes with Phil and Flo (Ana Lucas). She is an older woman, and his scenes with her have an Oedipal edge. Phil seems to desperately crave a mother figure, and Flint and Lucas have a sweet, tender bond here. In fact, all of the actors are impressive, both in terms of their understanding of the material and their ease with the near nudity. But scenes like the ones between Phil and Flo made me ask what the reason was for them. Why exactly is Phil searching for someone to take care of him? The lack of answers is more frustrating than Phil's often domineering behavior.
It should be said, though, that Flint delivers a strong, complicated performance throughout Bed, anchoring the entire evening and bouncing seamlessly back and forth between the scenes, each of which requires that different shades of Phil's personality are presented and obscured at once. The character is a real tightrope to walk—can Flint be true to Phil's unlikable habits and still foster a modicum of sympathy?
I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Sarah-Jane Casey as Phil's wife, Grace, who is exhausted by work and their newborn baby. Their sex lives have faded away, and foreplay inevitably leads to either begging or fighting. "Love is not an argument," Grace repeatedly declares. And yet by then the play has demonstrated that the bedroom is indeed a war zone.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Phil's relationship with Drew, an escort whom he picks up. As Drew, Nick Stevenson performs some particularly brave physical acts, including a realistic sadomasochism scene. Despite some of the disturbing situations Drew finds himself in, it's Phil's words that hurt the most. In particular, in their last scene together Flint delivers a lengthy monologue with an astounding amount of energy and concentration. It is a heated scene, but it never quite feels climactic. The actors of One Year Lease demonstrate throughout Bed how talented they are; unfortunately, they are acting out only half a show.