Maudlin Tanner - My Shame

Maudlin Tanner is a 42-year-old theatre director. He graduated from Manchester Polytechnic in 1988 and took his first job in the now legendary Concrete Skit Soup club (now Barrelscraper’s) in Stockport, managing the artists who came in and out. A few years ago, he began to produce his own pieces, and I’d imagine there’s been very little looking back.

Maudlin has made a name for himself recently with his theatrical performances, in which he took the world’s idea of modern theatre down from its pedestal, took a good look at it for a bit, then put it back as it was, because he decided it was irrelevant, and more importantly, that it - nor the pedestal - even existed in the first place, and even if they did he wouldn’t be interested. His last piece (Awkward Questions, 2007) saw him writing obscenities on children’s bare backs (the piece won a theatre award in the Manchester Contemporary Theatre Review), and the piece that preceded that (Don’t Get Me Started, 2006) was simply Tanner lying on his back in tight-fitting underwear, calling on the audience to shout out words that would give him a visible erection - while it may sound comical, it was intense and dark, as one was unsure of exactly should be said; the piece dealt with our prudish attitude to sex and our inability to act on our own initiative. The erection was quite besides the point (the piece also won a MCTR award). The audience filed into Rosette Rusts for his latest piece, “My Shame”, with a sense of trepidation. I could not wait.

Tanner finally emerged; wirey, thin and greying a little into the roots of his wild mop of brown hair, he was dressed in a suit that was divided in half, vertically - his left side perfect white, his right a deep dark scarlet. To a room of eager anticipation, Tanner raised his left (white) side and screamed, “my pride.” He raised the right, and the plot was violently thrown into a new direction when Tanner clenched his right fist and silently punched himself in the face with it. He spat out a runny mixture of blood and shattered teeth, before flashing us a grin through bloodied lips.

I was captivated.

It did not stop there. He began to pull his own hair, eventually wrestling himself to the ground, trying to kick his own head, and biting the backs of his hands. What we were witnessing was nothing short of catharsis. Here was a man giving himself a beating, in a way that extends beyond the fop and whimsy of traditional methods of self-injury - no tools, no pills, just one man and the raw, unbridled shame that leads to the most bold theatrical release of all time. Had Shakespeare had the nerve to include such sequences in his plays maybe they wouldn’t be so universally reviled today by those with the brains, the sense, and the cravats to see them for what they were - utter drivel. Shakespeare is dead, long live Maudlin Tanner.

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen - not a word was spoken, by he or the spectators, as we sat glued to our chairs. At times, your suspension of disbelief was such that it became all too easy to forget that Maudlin Tanner was wrestling alone up there. At times, it felt as if I was watching him wrestle everybody who had ever wronged him - with every snapped finger, crunching grotesquely within its muffled flesh (like a twig rammed up a sausage and stamped upon by wild-eyed tramps), I saw a man constantly at odds with his demons. In one particularly moving section of the performance approximately an hour in, Tanner - sweating, breathing heavily and plainly injured - got himself in a headlock and proceeded to twist his own nipples. Twenty minutes were spent twisting his own nipples into sore, reddened badges of post-modern misery. People considered to be “artists” by the great unwashed - Bob Dylan, Edward Hopper, Nick Berry and the likes - may take an entire album or portrait to tell you something about a situation or person that may never even have existed. Compared to Maudlin Tanner, Edward Hopper might as well be painting chocolate boxes and Bob Dylan could pass as nothing more than a tuneless smack addict tooting a tin whistle on Oxford Road. Tanner only had to spend five minutes pummeling his own testicles with a clenched fist and you suddenly saw his past laid triumphantly out behind him. Tanner has demons like we all have demons - who but Tanner is prepared to exorcise them on stage with merciless brutality? Not many, of that I am certain.

After two glorious hours, Tanner eventually fell down, exhausted, in a pile of blood, sweat, and a bit of sick - the piece finished with Maudlin holding himself up on weary legs and tying the whole motif together by screaming “my pride”, before collapsing. The applause was so blood-curdlingly rapturous that I immediately felt sorry for the families of the people who will undoubtedly see a little too much of themselves in a piece like this, and kill themselves stone dead as a result. As the applause reached the thick, clotted climax of its crescendo, the audience filed out gobsmacked; some punching themselves, others calling friends and family to apologize for all their misdoings. It was at that point I realized the true beauty of a piece such as Tanner’s. He brings out the best in people by showing his worst in such glorious technicolour. I was lucky enough to catch him being loaded into the ambulance at the stage door, and asked him exactly how much damage his art usually does.

“Oh, untold damages,” he told me with a twinkle in his obviously concussed eye. “Doctors tell me I’m abusing NHS resources and I should be ashamed and all that, but how much art do you think the NHS funds in a year? None - at least directly. But by sewing me up and putting my hands in plaster, I’m getting all the funding I need. Tonight was particularly rough, so this shit’s better than a fucking Lottery grant.”

Writing down what he could remember of tonight’s performance (undoubtedly for inclusion in his set at the Edinburgh Festival this year), he was taken away to be quite literally patronized by the NHS. On the way home, I caught my finger in the car door. Before I could rattle off a chain off expletives, I paused - and realized that perhaps in my own small way, I had exorcised my own demons. Perhaps in future, I shall be less cautious in where I choose to pop my finger.

Maudlin Tanner’s “My Shame” is running until January 19th at the Rosette Rusts theatre (formerly Maladroit Fern’s), Edison Street. Tickets start at £13 (£10 NUS).

Jetty Bruntwicker

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