Friday, 21 September 2012

Heroic and Sam

As Johnny McKnight uses it, the superhero is the perfect vehicle for the dissection of a young person's anxiety. Although he looks back to the Silver and Golden Ages of comic books - it's telling that he uses Superman as a motif rather than one of the more popular, contemporary heroes like Wolverine or even Hulk - McKnight's tale of youthful grief is enhanced by the hero's fascination with the superhero.

When Alan Moore reinvented the 1990s bad-ass Supreme, he consciously drew on the Golden Age Superman. Deconstructing the childish tropes of the 1950s hero - weird time travel tales, frustrated romances, ironic secret identities, surreal supporting characters - Moore discovered the innocent heart of the superhero. Each story became more than just a fight with a villain: they illustrated moral points, encouraging a gentlemanly, restrained conduct.

For McKnight's protagonist Sam, the nuances of the Superman mythos provide at least some guidance in a world gone mad. It's Superboy's gentle romance with Lana Lang that helps him through that tentative first date. Superman's vulnerability to kryptonite that explains his irrationale  aversion to the colour green. Whether Sam's problems stem from the death of his parents or a more congenital disorder is unclear: towards the end, the family taboo around the word "spaz" may reflect a reaction to Sam's mental health. But for most of the play, Sam comes across as a relatively typical, awkward teenager.

The combination of Jamie MacDonald's animation and Kim Beveridge's video design transplants Sam's adventures into a theatrical version of a comic book - splash titles, thought bubbles, rooms and streets rendered in black ink are projected onto a clear white wall. It allows Sam's flights of fantasy to become as real as the mundane world of classroom and bedroom.

McKnight has realised that the comic book and the theatre share an awkward relationship to reality. They also happen to be threatened art forms in the internet age. But the comic book and theatre are both effect ways of presenting ideas in an entertaining format. At the bottom of See Thru Sam, perhaps more than in any other of Random Accomplice's plays, McKnight has connected the alienation of an individual to the alienation of the art form itself.

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