Theatre Laid Bare

Blog by Gareth Vile | 29 Jul 2009
  • Nic Green's Trilogy

While Anti-Christ is upsetting cinephiles with its explicit violence and apparent misogyny, this theatre critic doesn’t understand. Anti-Christ is a movie, and protects its cast with the same trickery as TV for Derren Brown and 1930s radio for ventriloquists. Hanging out on the cabaret and Live Art scenes, I regularly cheer along as real people pull things out of orifices, cut themselves, run about naked and drink blood. It’s a shame that The Daily Mail lacks an adventurous reporter: then they could have some real “BAN THIS FILTH” headlines. 

The place of nudity in live performance is contested. In Nic Green’s Trilogy, there is a great deal of female nudity that has worried some critics, especially in an avowedly feminist work. And in burlesque, does the majority presence of women as promoters and performers, audience and advocates really avoid the accusations of exploitation? Regulars at Tramway might be disappointed if they go home from a Belgian production without some flash of flesh, but does the status of art protect it from the censorship that governs other media? 

In Trilogy, the nudity is framed so that it deliberately anti-pornographic: similarly in burlesque, the stripping is justified by comedy and rhetoric of self-esteem and inclusion. These could be mere fig-leaves of distraction, hiding the more fundamental tensions that emerge when sexuality and society collide. Of course, these productions are aimed at adults, aside from the occasional absurd piece of programming as at Latitude, when Fancy Chance was booked into a daytime slot. It is telling, however, that Chance didn’t perform her usual routines in front of the liberal parents and their untamed toddlers. And in London, burlesque nights are being expected to have the same licence as lap-dance clubs, a clear sign that for some bureaucrats, there is little difference. 

Inevitably, I’d defend the right of performers to undress, even cut themselves on stage. There might be the odd director or actor who is indulging their own exhibitionism, voyeurism or aggressive need to control, but to legislate against them is to exclude those who use nudity as a strategy to provoke and expose. At Itsy’s Kabaret, Empress Shah did two acts that could reasonably described as self-harm: pouring molten wax on her stomach and inject a syringe into her arm. Despite the polish and finesse, which distracted from the brutality of these actions, they were part of a serious and profound comment on the nature of passion. When she toasted the audience with her own blood in a champagne glass, it had the symbolic intensity of a nightmare, and nailed the self-destruction that lurks behind so much romanticism.  

Nic Green, on the other hand, takes any erotic bite out of nudity, celebrating the body as shameless: some of the scenes in Bloody Town Hall are all the more innocent because the actors are naked. And many burlesquers recapture a charming sensuality, removing striptease from harsh commercialism and re-inventing it as humorous and sincere. I wouldn’t defend nudity purely on the grounds of its lack of eroticism, however. Nightshade, a production by Victoria that paired strippers and contemporary choreographers encouraged a sexual response, which made the accompanying messages more immediate.  

Theatre can’t use its isolation as an excuse: performance happens in, and impacts upon society. But frankly, when the internet has such an exotic selection of material, and my local newsagent has two rows of magazines that boast SEX HUNGRY BABES, attacking the liberal arts is always going to be a token gesture. Sexual content does have a habit of warping perspectives, which is why it is so valuable as a strategy but also why the debate around it is frequently ill-informed or self-justification masquerading as reason. The relationships between the body, sexuality, consumerism, feminism and social values are endlessly fascinating, and it seems utterly appropriate that performance wants to map them. It does a far better job of it than philosophy or tabloid editors.