Freak, by Anna Jordan
Anna Jordan is fascinated by the internet and the way its ceaseless flow of information shapes and conditions our everyday lives. The ways in which people engage and respond to the online world underpins much of her work as a dramatist: she can “very clearly remember what life was like before the internet. I think the first time I got the internet was when I was twenty! What interests me is the availability of information, media, messages, pornography etc. I’m interested in how the world is changing at such an incredibly rapid rate and the way in which this is affecting young people and the pressures they’re having to deal with”
Jordan, who won the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for her play, Yen, has two new pieces opening this week. Chicken Shop, which opens at the Park Theatre, while Freak, an unflinching two-hander examining the sexualisation of Leah, a teenage girl, is at Theatre 503 following a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Yen will soon be getting it’s own full-scale production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. “It’s something that I never dared dream off”, she tells me, “so when it happened [winning the Bruntwood Prize] it really was a shock. A wonderful shock”.
In 2006, Jordan decided to create her own company, Without A Paddle, as a means of staging her own work. It was upon completing her actors training and graduating drama school that she quickly discovered a penchant for writing and set about staging her own plays with the help of actor-friends in various rehearsed readings. This combination of actor training and directing experience has proved fundamentally important in honing her skills as a playwright: “It begun as a way of getting things from page to stage. I think my acting and directing work really shapes how I write. It gives you a fantastic overview. I’ve met so many brilliant actors and I can genuinely say I wouldn’t be where I was in the development of my writing if they hadn’t given me their time”.
Jordan’s writing can be challenging, sometimes provocative, but it is always compassionate, funny and engaged with the world. Blending pathos with humour and tempering despair with hope, her writing doesn’t shy away from exploring the murkier side of human nature: “Freak, Yen and Chicken Shop all share cross-over themes and they all deal with young people and attitudes to sex. In terms of warmth and humour, mixing in with despair and darkness, my work tends to veer between those extremes. I think that’s how I think and live as a person, probably. I think it’s really important.”
With Chicken Shop, Jordan brings these anxieties to the fore in a story that combines a young boy’s coming of age tale with the altogether more sinister and hidden world of sexual exploitation.Chicken Shop explores the disturbing world of sex trafficking from the points of view of the customer and the victim. The story concerns Hendrix, a sixteen-year-old boy whose feelings of alienation and frustration lead him to the bedroom of a trafficked girl, Luminita; Hendrix wants to prove his masculinity by sowing his wild oats, but when he arrives face-to-face with this young vulnerable woman, the stark reality of her situation becomes painfully clear: “The heart of the play concerns this unlikely friendship and it’s essentially about two people who are becoming something incredibly important to each other. They’re giving each what they need in this short space of time.”
Within the world of sex trafficking, the intersection of money, sex and slavery combine to form a seedy and secretive arena dominated by fear and exploitation. It’s a world in which young and vulnerable women, often hailing from impoverished backgrounds, are coerced into trading sex for currency. In 2010, an ACPO (Association of Chief and Police Officers) study revealed that throughout the UK alone, at least 2,600 women were sold into prostitution after being trafficked from abroad. Staggeringly, over 90% of these women were said to be living and ‘working’ in London. In truth, the actual figure is almost certainly a great deal higher. For Jordan, the realisation that much of this activity was taking place around the corner from her front-door and under the veil of secrecy, galvanised her to write: “When you start researching sex trafficking, it turns into this awful wormhole. You can really get stuck and go down further and further into these terrible details. It really is the worst of humanity in the way that these girls are trafficked and treated.”
Chicken Shop began to take shape in 2010 when Jordan found herself compelled to write the play in response to an event that occurred uncomfortably close to home: “I heard a news report about a raid carried out above a chicken shop; a brothel was discovered with lots of sex trafficked prostitutes working there. What really shook me up was that it was just around the corner from my house. It was a chicken shop I’d been to many times after nights out. I had no idea what was going on above it”. Since then, the subject of sex trafficking has proved fertile ground for plays including viscerally affecting docu-dramas like Matthew AckLand’s Broken Dolls and Corra Bisset’s Roadkill, as well as the surreal, Kafkaesque detective-story of Simon Stephens’ and Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms.
Reflecting on the event that first made her want to write about the subject, Jordan says that she believes that despite these previous excursions into the world of sex-trafficking, it’s a subject that remains in continual need of addressing: “I think that sometimes something a little bit dangerous can happen in theatre; there’s a ‘zeitgeist’ issue and a lot of plays will spring up. Some of the feedback I’ve had about [Chicken Shop] is based on the idea that sex trafficking has slightly faded from public consciousness”.
This has only strengthened Jordan’s resolve to place this world onto the stage. She is aware of the way in which the victims and perpetrators of sex trafficking are hidden from sight, and with Chicken Shop, she has sought to challenge this and bring this subject back into view: “There seems to be a feeling that it’s somehow ‘unfashionable’ now, that we’ve looked at sex trafficking in theatre and now we’re moving onto other stuff. I think that’s terrifying. As long as this stuff is still happening, we need stories in order to tell us about it.”