A new play by Jonathon Crewe, Under the Radar plays at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham from 12 – 16 November.
Billed as “a new dark comedy about the conflicts between gender, tradition and modernity bubbling up to the surface in the contained space of a submarine”, it puts together Lee (a woman reporter) and Martin (an eccentric inventor) into a blackly comic piece in which only one of them will make it back to shore.
Jonathon Crewe has reflected in the media pack to accompany the play that “Under the Radar explores the need to look at the way tradition, society and culture uphold the patriarchy, how they uphold micro-aggressions, unconscious bias and misogyny. That until we are able to break free from these traditions, prejudiced male violence towards women will continue.”
I asked Jonathon to tell me a bit more about his play.
Your play sounds rather fascinating – do you think the characters of Lee and Martin play on your own unconscious biases as creatives at all?
JC: Given the subject matter, themes and aims of the play, as a male writer it would be disingenuous to say they didn’t. One of the reasons I wrote the play was to put a mirror up to men and male privilege, myself included. Many of the characteristics I developed in Martin came through reflecting on my own behaviour and of men around me.
After writing the first few drafts, I was conscious to have the script read by female writers, editors and friends in order to assess whether my own prejudices had seeped unconsciously into the character of Lee. This process was invaluable as it really helped me develop her character, bringing out her own desires and hang ups, inner conflicts and contradictions.
It was absolutely vital that Lee was a rounded, real character and not just a victim figure for Martin and the audience. Instead she becomes more than a match for him, whilst at the same time being relatable to the audience. A couple of key influences for Lee were, of course Fleabag, but also the short story Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian – both of which present nuanced, individuated, female characters who have to deal with the unconscious biases of the men around them and society in general.
Gender seems to have become quite a loaded word, focusing on just what is a “man” or a “woman” and whether those definitions really can be fluid. Have these arguments impacted on your play at all?
JC: The arguments themselves didn’t impact the writing of the play as such, but the idea of gender being performative, and therefore fluid, certainly played a part in the development of the characters.
The roles of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ tend to be socially and culturally constructed and in the past (and present too) anyone who transgressed from these risk being ‘othered’ and, to an extent, ostracised from the mainstream.
Martin, a generation older than Lee, adheres to the normative gender roles, clear on how a woman and a man should act and be. Lee, on the other hand, is very much a modern independent woman who exhibits traditional ‘unladylike’ behaviour, which to Martin is an affront to his socio-cultural gendered status and ideology.
However, in the play, this ‘unladylike’ behaviour is nothing more than Lee taking ownership of her own body and decisions and not allowing Martin any level of possession of her identity. It is this transgression of normative gendered behaviour that Martin reacts to in the only way he can regain control of the male hegemony, which is violence and repression.
The setting of Under The Radar was inspired by the murder of journalist Kim Wall, as your press release states. Why was this chosen as inspiration?
JC: It’s important to note that only the scenario of the story was used in the writing of Under the Radar. I did no research into the backgrounds of either Peter Madsen or Kim Wall, as I did not want the play to become nothing more than a macabre ‘reenactment’ which plays on a fascination with ‘true crime’ and, to an extent, mythifies the killer. It was vital that the audience does not see Martin as Peter and therefore cast him as nothing more than an ‘abnormal’ monster, and therefore unrelatable.
The scenario was an influence as it creates a natural microcosm of gender in society. It really allowed me as a writer to put the characters under the microscope and bring out their unconscious behaviours on the stage. The submarine, itself a phallic symbol, becomes an extension of Martin’s ego. The setting, literally “under the radar”, is a chance to get under Martin’s skin, as Lee does as a sharp and intuitive reporter, and expose his biases and their connection to traditions and culture.
From a more practical point of view, the submarine a great setting for a theatrical production and story – enclosed, pressurised and tense.
I often think that the modern man has to operate in a world of extreme caution in what they say and do. How does Martin fit into this?
JC: I think that men in general do, to some extent, have to walk a fine line when it comes to their behaviour. However, I don’t think this is a result of feminism or the #metoo movement. Rather it is a result of men beginning to realise that as the hegemonic landscape is shifting, they need to challenge past behaviours and relearn how to exist in a world of sexual equality.
Part of this is male recognition that women are not some different creature, but very much the same in terms of nuanced emotional and intellectual landscapes – same loves, hates, desires, needs etc. As the UK’s Equalities Commission’s slogan used to be ‘Men. Women. Equal. Different.’ If this is recognised, then I don’t think modern man has to operate with caution, but with respect for others, be they men or women.
Martin as a character sees this shift in gender power dynamics and, on the surface, accepts it. However, internally he cannot reconcile that with the need to purge himself of all the biases and learned behaviours that result in his expectations of how a man and woman should act. He walks this fine line between the internal and external, but it is because they are not reconciled and remain in conflict that he lashes out against Lee, who symbolises that clash.
If a man feels they are walking a fine line, it’s mostly likely that they are not a ‘modern’ man, yet one still weighed down by a feeling of patriarchal entitlement that they cannot, or don’t want to, let go.
Was Under The Radar a dark comedy from the start, or did it evolve in that direction?
JC: It was always meant to be a comedy from the outset of writing. I wanted to undermine audience expectations, to unsettle them, to bring them closer to the characters through humour.
It was important to make Martin surprising and engaging. To never allow the audience the chance to distance themselves from him, or to turn him into nothing more than a ‘monster’ they couldn’t relate to. For me, Martin must reflect the full spectrum from unconscious bias and male privilege through micro-aggressions and open misogyny to prejudiced emotional and physical abuse against women. Using comedy to make Martin a more rounded character implicitly leads male audience members to identify more closely with him, holding up a mirror to their own behaviour.
The other reason is that comedy undermines the audience expectation of themes and treatment of themes. I want the audience to laugh alongside Lee and Martin, to laugh at the set pieces and then be shocked at what they were laughing at and who they were laughing with.
Humour is often used as an excuse for misogynistic behaviour, for example the multiple comments and recordings of privileged men such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, which are then brushed off by supporters as nothing more than a joke or an ironic comment. However, this allows these comments to be legitimised, as long as they are framed as ‘humour’. This creates feedback loops of behaviour that permeate through society and, as we have seen, devisions between groups flare up as powerful men are not called to account.
I wanted to use comedy to expose the lie that humour is an excuse for biased behaviour. To ask the audience to question what they’re laughing at and who they are laughing with.
There have been many projects focusing on different aspects of #MeToo, and quite rightly so. What makes Under The Radar stand out?
JC: The #metoo movement is an essential development in society and should be embraced absolutely by both men and women. Under the Radar is an attempt to look at why and how the #metoo movement is not just about ‘bad’ men, but about all men and the systematic inequalities created by unconscious bias and male privilege.
What makes it different is that Under the Radar is not looking at one awful character, one ‘bad’ man, but attempting to break down the years of learned behaviour that men have, that keep bias alive and to connect small aggressions with their logical conclusions.
Under the Radar is a way to connect man in general, with the actions of Trumps and Johnsons of the world and to evoke a reaction to the ‘legitimisation’ that they seek. It is not to demonise men, or say that all men are the same, just that only men have male privilege and that means all men need to reflect on what that means to both them and to the women around them.
Under the Radar is different because it seeks to do this from the inside out, rather than the outside in. It is not a critique of men as such, rather a pathological study of how culture and tradition have created male privilege, how this has developed learned micro-aggressions in male behaviour towards women, and how, if left unchecked, if taken to their logical conclusion, it will lead to prejudiced violence towards women. Under the Radar looks to put culture and tradition under the microscope and attempt to expose the roots of male privilege engrained in the psyche of men.
My thanks to Jonathon for his time and interesting answers, and to Wan Yuan for facilitating and providing the images.
Under the Radar is on at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham from 12 – 16 November, playing at 7.15pm and running for 70 minutes. You can purchase tickets at https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/whats-on.html#event=32928170.