My role


Far from the madding crowd

David Wilkins watches a piece of performance art that takes the Thomas Hardy approach to male emotions.

The image of a lone figure walking the Dorset countryside is a familiar one to anyone who has read Thomas Hardy. Walking somewhere takes as long as it takes, solitariness encourages reflection and the timelessness of the landscape frees the walker from the constraints of the present.

Of course, it’s not always men who walk the land in Hardy – Tess trudges home on foot, covering more miles in a couple of days than most of us manage in a month these days – but it was very specifically blokes who did the walking in Clive Whaley’s film and performance piece, Lonely Boys, at Bridport Arts Centre last week.

Clive’s neat idea was to take three local chaps of different generations, release them to wander an empty stretch of West Dorset and allow them simply to talk. And what they talked about, very largely, was the experience of being a man.

Dewi Lambert, aged twenty-something and John Surry, aged eighty-something, represented the younger and older generations. Clive himself, aged forty-something filled the space between. The resulting film was shown to an accompaniment of live music, while the flesh-and-blood Dewi, Clive or John intermittently arrived onstage to sing us a song that expanded on their on-screen thoughts.

During his own contributions to the film, Clive talked directly to camera about his recent experience of mental health problems – and there was little in the film that was not about male psychology in one way or another.

The content was moving. John reminisced about his career and spoke elegantly of his love for his wife and family; Dewi was drawn back often, to his difficulty in finding a direction. What we saw in all three men though was a bit of a struggle. The difficulty, not just in sorting out life’s big questions, but the awkwardness, for a bloke, in putting all that internal stuff into words.

When Clive gave us empty landscape he did so reverently. West Dorset is a beautiful place and Clive has an artist’s eye. When the men appeared, their feet encountered the tangible surfaces of tree roots and wet grass and pebbles. Inevitably, they sometimes stumbled and slipped. But that was the point. The going wasn’t easy. They had been asked to talk intimately about themselves and that is unfamiliar ground for many of us. I’m not sure I could have done it myself. And when they arrived onstage to sing and speak to us live, they seemed out of their comfort zone again - but all three perfomed brilliantly. They were rewarded with a standing ovation.

One of the themes that Lonely Boys explores is that all men are boys at heart. In his poem Childhood Among the Ferns, Thomas Hardy remembers asking himself the same question:

“’Why should I have to grow to man’s estate.
And this afar-noised World perambulate?’”

The answer to which, is that growing up just happens and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. What Lonely Boys nicely demonstrates is that becoming a man is nowhere near as easy as people would have you believe.

No future performances of Lonely Boys are scheduled at the moment but a DVD may be available in due course. Check out Clive Whaley’s website for more details and to see a short trailer of the film element of the show.

Also very well worth seeing is another recent film exploring men’s lives and feelings, Meghan Horvath’s The Middle Men, which won the award for Best British Documentary at last year’s London Independent Film Festival.

  • David Wilkins is the Men's Health Forum's policy officer

Page created on May 19th, 2011

Page updated on May 20th, 2011