Written & directed by Craig Hepworth
The King’s Arms, Salford
Until 24th November 2015
Ascension is the latest production from Manchester fringe trailblazers Vertigo Productions, and is not for the faint of heart. Or those averse to full frontal nudity. Or BDSM. Or S & M. Or murder. Or blood. Or sex. Or animal cruelty. Or bottoms. Or…, actually, I think I’d better stop there, as I’m guessing that you’ve got the picture by now. Yes, this one’s got it all, folks. Something to offend everybody. Well, those who delight in being offended, that is. Craig Hepworth has set his new stage play in modern day America, but takes his inspiration from the notorious Leopold and Loeb case of 1924. Described as ‘The crime of the century’, the infamous murder of a teenage boy, by a pair of self-obsessed, rich young things with superiority complexes (they actually considered themselves ‘Supermen’, after overdosing on Nietzche) became an international sensation. Leopold and Loeb considered themselves above the law, and set out to prove how clever they were by meticulously planning and executing the murder of an innocent 14 year old (they failed. Spectacularly). Hepworth’s script takes the basic theme of deluded personalities seeking to impose their will on others, and fashions a quite terrifying tale of two souls descending into madness, and destroying everybody they come into contact with.
The two central performances are flawless. Richard Allen and Ryan McMyler play a gay couple, Richard and Nathan, superglued together in a violent, depraved, and mutually destructive sadomasochistic relationship. Nathan is the dominant partner; portrayed with frightening intensity by the livewire McMyler. His adoring, and supremely subservient lover, Richard (a deceptively controlled Allen) gets the brown end of the stick whilst suffering an endless barrage of slaps, punches, cigarette burns, and rough sexual assaults. From the very beginning, it is Richard who is the stronger man, and Nathan who we see gradually losing his mind. Noir-ish flashbacks detail the characters’ individual backstories – Nathan is a spoilt rich boy, delighting in abusing animals, while Richard is the mild-mannered kid suffering bullying at school. Video excerpts of the men’s’ lives are shot in a beautifully noir style, reminiscent of the nightmare imagery of film-maker David Lynch. The whole story zips by in a pacey, movie-esque style, with no fat to be trimmed. I’m not entirely convinced we needed to have the story set in the US, but maybe that’s just a personal thing (it could have been even more terrifying, particularly for a Salford audience, to have it set in the north of England). Director Hepworth indulges writer Hepworth, and has an ensemble of mask-wearing, supporting characters play out a variety of scene-setting pieces utilising dance, mime, and physical theatre. Almost every character is semi-naked throughout, which gives the play a raw, edgy atmosphere, particularly when the actors lend their bodies for use as tables and chairs by the two leads.
As I said, not for the faint hearted.