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Rosy Carrick: Musclebound

By | Published on Friday 15 July 2022

If you are a Fringe regular – or were simply in town in 2018 – you may well remember ‘Passionate Machine’, a hit show by writer and performer Rosy Carrick that won great acclaim, and even an award.

When I heard that Rosy would be back in Edinburgh this summer, I was keen to hear about her new show.  

Though, even if it didn’t come with the pedigree of being by Rosy, ‘Musclebound’ would have definitely piqued my interest, not least because of its rather personal and somewhat explicit themes. 

But it wasn’t just the show I was interested in: Rosy has such an interesting career, as not only does she perform and write plays, she’s a poet and translator too. I spoke to her to find out more. 

CM: Can we start with what to expect from ‘Musclebound’ in terms of narrative? What story does it tell? 
RC: Well, I start the play by saying that this is a story “about muscles and coming” – which sums it up, basically!

As a young child growing up in the 80s, I became erotically obsessed with watching hyper-muscular men being tortured by their male antagonists in films like ‘Conan The Barbarian’ and ‘Masters Of the Universe’.

‘Musclebound’ is about my rediscovery of these really quite bizarre – but incredibly powerful – scenes as an adult, and about my mission to challenge and redefine my own sexual power in response to them.

At the same time, it explores the relationship between me and my daughter, Olive, who I had when I was nineteen, and who, at the time the show is set, was just turning eighteen herself.

She was at the start of her own sexual journey – and it really made me look at my past sexual history – about what I wished I had known, and about certain patterns of behaviour I wished I hadn’t fallen into.

I’ve always been a single mother, and in many ways I’ve grown up alongside Olive. I wanted to write the kind of shameless and honest account of female pleasure and sexual fantasy that I wished I’d seen at her age – it would have helped me a lot!

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
RC: The play explores themes of sexual shame, sexual power, and owning your sexual truths – from a very female perspective. It ended up being a really hilarious narrative – far funnier than I had anticipated it being.

Partly, I think, because I talk about sexual fetish, objectification and masturbation in a very frank and playful way, but also because I’m quite an obsessive person – ‘Musclebound’ is a true story and I went in hard – from cruising my local bodybuilding gyms for hotties, to tracking down Arnold Schwarzenegger himself and quizzing him of the history of tortured beefcake!

But besides all this, the play asks some serious – and crucial – questions about the politics of sexual pleasure, about which sexual lessons we need to teach our children, and which lessons we still need to learn for ourselves.

CM: So it’s based on real life stuff, but to what extent? Is it all completely autobiographical?
RC: There are a couple of moments that I added for dramatic effect, but on the whole, yes – the play is completely autobiographical.

Which seems kind of crazy, now I look back on it. Sometimes my director would say “but Rosy, I really just think it seems too implausible that anyone in their right mind would be doing THIS right now!” And I would be forced to say “yes… but alas, it is the truth!”

CM: What made you want to create a show tackling this particular topic?
RC: When I first began work on this play, it was going to start and end on the subject of my love of tortured muscle, and the weird gender politics around that.

There seemed to be a total inoculation against objectification for those male heroes – Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Stallone and Van Damme – at the time the films were made. The torture scenes are clearly so homoerotic, and yet these muscle movies were aimed squarely at straight men, and tended to be – at root – vehicles for reinforcing heteronormative, patriarchal ideology.

Their sexual overtones have been recognised and appropriated by gay BDSM culture, but the existence of female desire seems not to have been acknowledged or reckoned with at all – even while chained heroes everywhere are literally crying out for – ostensibly straight – objectification!

But the more research I did, the more I found myself thinking about how the dynamics in these films intersected with my own sexual development.

The stuff I absorbed from mainstream culture about sex – and particularly about what is meant to be “a sexy woman” – when I was growing up was so insidiously toxic, and totally at odds with what I actually needed for sexual fulfilment.

In a weird way, I realised these films have probably been the most healthy arenas for my fantasies to operate in – they are at least transparent – everything is played out on the fetishised body itself.

And then, as I say, my own daughter was growing up, and I had all these anxieties about how she might feel she needed to operate in the world as a sexual being… And suddenly, I was writing a very different – and more complex – kind of show!

CM: Who is the show aimed at? Who do you think will get something out of it?
RC: The show is really for everyone. It’s sexy, it’s provocative, it’s fun, and it opens conversations that everyone can engage with.

I think that women will probably resonate more directly with my personal experience in terms of sexual expectations and performance – particularly in heterosexual couples – but I had a lot of feedback from men at my Brighton shows who really connected to those elements too.

I’m aware that the show’s central thrust, of my obsession with bodybuilders in bondage, is quite a singular one, but whether you’re into musclemen or not – and most people aren’t! – there’s something so innately fascinating and almost grotesque about that world; about how it’s presented and what it represents, as a prism for exploring the themes of the show.

Trust me when I say you’ll learn to love it!

CM: How easy is it to talk about something that’s quite personal like this?
RC: My work always tends to be personal, and in general I have no problem going into details of my life with total strangers. But there are moments in this play when I tackle some very shameful and personal sexual truths, and that felt very difficult.

It was odd, because the show itself is so fun, and I was really LOLing my head off sometimes as I wrote it, but at the core of it was something that had been such a huge source of shame for me for many years.

I actually almost cancelled the whole thing several times – I just couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t sleep, I felt sick all the time… I thought: why the hell am I doing this to myself?!

BUT that is precisely why I wanted to make it in the first place, so I forced myself to continue, and I’m so glad I did. I received a lot of emails from people after my Brighton Fringe previews, saying they had never seen anyone talk so openly about what I talk about in the play.

They were so heartening – and let me know that YES – this is important – there is great power in standing up and saying the things that sometimes feel impossible to say.

CM: You’ve taken work to the Edinburgh Festival previously – how did it work out the last time? Did things go well?
RC: Yes, I brought my play ‘Passionate Machine’ to Edinburgh in 2018 and had such a brilliant time with it!

It had already won the awards for Best New Play and Best Design at Brighton Fringe that year – and at Edinburgh won The Infallibles Award For Theatrical Excellence, and got really great reviews.

It was a hard slog, physically – I had ruptured two discs in my spine in May that year so was wearing a support brace all the time except when I was on stage – but I think it helped strengthen me back up!

CM: What made you want to return to edfringe this year? What are you looking forward to about being back at the Festival?
RC: By the time lockdown ended last year I was really gagging to get back into live performance. I love the atmosphere of EdFringe and I’m really looking forward to getting out there and seeing loads of shows.

I also just love the city itself. My sister lives here, my dad is in Gretna and my mum lived in Aberdeenshire for many years but, living in Brighton, I don’t often get up there so it’s nice to be getting some Scottish air into my lungs again!

CM: What will you be doing when not performing?
RC: I’m currently co-writing a video game for za/um studio, so a couple of days a week while I’m up there I’ll be cracking on with that, and the rest of the time I’ll be swimming in the sea, catching shows, going for walks… and relaxing.

I guess I’ll have to do a bit of flyering this year too. Last time, my back was too crippled so I got a team of flyerers to do all that on my behalf, but this year I really have no excuse for not doing it myself!

CM: You’re a poet and translator, as well as a performer and playwright. Can you tell us a bit about these other things that you do?
RC: I started writing poetry when I was seven, and fell in love with it. It felt so magical that, with just a pencil and a piece of paper, I could create these new things that were all my own, and assert my control over language! For many years I ran Hammer And Tongue in Brighton, and I’m also compere of the Glastonbury Poetry And Words stage. 

And my translating started much later. In about 2008, I fell in love with this incredibly passionate and sexy – but, alas, dead – Russian revolutionary poet called Vladimir Mayakovsky while doing an MA at Sussex University.

I was reading a 1915 poem by him, called ‘A Cloud In Trousers’, and it was so kaleidoscopic and avant-garde, and beautiful, and crazy – I just couldn’t fathom how one would come to a translation like that. It made me want to learn Russian so I could see how it felt in the original. 

Next thing you know, I’m writing a PhD on this dude, and in doing so I noticed that only a very small number of his works had actually ever been translated into English – which had led to rather a skewed perspective of him in the western world.

For example, his passionate love poems have been translated multiple times, but most of his overtly feminist work and poetry for children has never been translated at all, which has led to this totally false western view of him as some kind of smouldering macho womaniser. I wanted to redress the balance, so my translations emerged from there.

CM: It sounds like you’ve had a fairly eclectic career – how did it develop? Was it always your intention to perform and write?
RC: When I was growing up I had no idea that it could even be possible to have a career in writing and performance. I loved writing, and I loved acting, but it came as a real revelation to me in my early twenties that I could actually DO THAT in my day-to-day life. 

I think the double-pronged fork that pokes forward the rather eclectic shape of my work – if that’s not too convoluted a way of putting it! – is made up of my inability to resist the obsessive pursuit of something I become interested in, and my fear of feeling bored, or static, in my life.

I also just really like the balance of different kinds of work, and have always been a bit of an academic swot.

I used to run this big cult-movie-themed cabaret club night called ‘Trailer Trash!’ at Brighton Komedia, and it felt really exciting to be, for example, pulling fake guts out of my belly and feeding them to audience members by night, and then writing about the Soviet Russian political economy by day!

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life so far?
RC: Making my first Mayakovsky book, ‘Volodya’, was a real highlight. I cried so much when the book deal came through!

Going to CERN to share my theories on traversable wormholes, following the release of ‘Passionate Machine’ was another excellent moment. It was an extremely geeky show and led to some fascinating discoveries about time travel!

Aaaand – without wanting to give too much away, interviewing both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren for ‘Musclebound’ was a dream come true!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
RC: Well, I would really like to become a world-class pianist, but the trouble is I’m now 40 and currently can’t play piano at all. Am I doomed?

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
RC: I have a new collection of Mayakovsky translations coming out with 87 Press next year, and, as I mentioned earlier, have also just started co-writing a video game for za/um studio – whose debut game ‘Disco Elysium’ won twelve awards and really set the bar for narrative writing in role-playing games – so that will really kick off in the autumn.

Theatre-wise, I’ll be touring ‘Musclebound’ next year, but besides that I have been thinking a lot about the second half of chapter nine of ‘The Wind In The Willows’ – in which the water rat meets a roguish adventuring wayfarer rat – and am starting to feel out the ideas for another play, about what it means to live by the wayfarer’s instructions to “seize the adventure, now ere the irrevocable moment is lost!”

So far, this has involved booking me and my – pretty reluctant – daughter onto a sailing course. Not quite sure where I’m going with it yet, but watch this space!

‘Musclebound’ was performed at Assembly Roxy at Edinburgh Festival 2022.

LINKS: www.rosycarrick.com | twitter.com/rosycarrick 

Photo: Andre Pattenden