Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men could be seen as a dark comedy or as just dark. This is not a laugh-a-minute show, despite the hype; more a meander through murky minds that provides the occasional amusing moment.

We work our way through tales of violence, sadomasochism, defecation and assorted sexual acts that at times create an uneasy tension as we wonder what might come next.

It’s a challenging work to undertake and some might wonder why they attempt it, given the wealth of other material available. David Foster Wallace’s loquacious postmodernist book of the same title has pages of unpunctuated prose and interviews without questions. Visually it affords few opportunities and transferring it to the stage is a daunting task, but Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) has made a valiant attempt

The disturbing nature of Wallace’s material immediately confronts us. Ellie Lowenthal, playing the only female character, menacingly asks a silent man, played by Josh Dolphin, ‘What if I did it to you?’ Overhead we hear a chilling rationalisation of rape and the holocaust, which sets the unsavoury tone for what is to follow. Hamish Forbes follows as the Sex Coach. 

In an evangelistic style, somewhat disturbingly sounding and even looking a little like David Cameron, this know-all smoothy regales us with his analysis of men’s sexual motivation and self-centredness. Next, Dan Byam Shaw plays the city trader husband whose insomnia and nighttime shopping habits – combined with allegedly having to go to the office at all hours – cover for his need to escape the house to indulge his sexual fantasies while his wife’s gratification takes another course. Thus we work our way through tales of violence, sadomasochism, defecation and assorted sexual acts that at times create an uneasy tension as we wonder what might come next.

Josh Dolphin’s fireside chat manner makes the bizarre nature of his power-obsessed sexual games seem completely rational, while Ellie Lowenthal is suitably distressed by her peculiar orgasamic outbursts. Hamish Forbes and Dan Byam Shaw create two patronisingly contemptuous characters in a toilet scene, in addition to their well-defined incarnations elsewhere. Sound and lighting both contribute much: the deliberate choice of songs at odds with the substance of the text appropriately heightens the abnormalities of the protagonists.

The cast performs well and each has a clear voice that fully copes with the verbosity of the text. They all generate a struggling search for meaning and a manner in which to express it. Even in the most vividly descriptive monologues, there is still the sense of the inadequacy of language and hence the use of more and more words, as they try to give full vent to what they truly believe, feel and experience.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is an interesting if rather unappealing piece that has the air of an academic exercise. OUDS has done a good job with a restricting book, but the whole experience is rather numbing.

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The Blurb

Since its publication in 1999, David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has become a cult classic: famed for its darkly hilarious take on modern sexual and social insecurities. Now his vision comes to the stage in this innovative new adaptation. Fresh from a sell-out run in Oxford, this production takes Wallace’s monstrous cast of characters and brings them riotously to life, from a man with a mortifying orgasm and an S&M enthusiast with a twist, to the secret at the heart of a perfect marriage... Funny, disturbing and endlessly surprising.