Waves crash on a cinema screen mounted on a revolving stage, its rotations powered by the exertions of women in brightly coloured African dress pushing steel bars extended from the floor. A fourth actress performs in silhouette behind the stage, miming an unsteady march across the deck of a boat upon which we are all, suddenly, passengers.
As abruptly, the music stops, the stage sways to a halt, and our fourth actress – the silhouette – rushes to the front of the stage and promptly vomits (in mime, I believe) into the lap of a man in the front row. She apologises to him profusely before asking another audience member, several rows back, to pass forward the little brown bag she left by his seat earlier.
So ends the voyage of Sarah Baartman – our titular ‘Brown Venus’ – to London; one of the first scenes in Robyn Orlin’s typically eclectic / chaotic mix of film, live theatre, and vaudeville.
Johannesburg-born Robyn Orlin has earned the nickname “a permanent irritation” in her native South Africa. A prolific dancer, choreographer and performance artist, she has also directed Händel for the Opéra de Paris. But tonight she appears to be experimenting in a new form for which we might almost be tempted to resurrect the old-fashioned word, ‘spectacular’ if the piece were not so resolutely focused on the refusal and disruption of any move towards spectacularisation.
The real Sarah (or Saartjie) Baartman came herself from what would today be the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The slave of Dutch farmers, she was brought to England in 1789 and, though by all accounts a talented singer and dancer, exhibited as if a wild animal, subjected to a pathologising gaze for her supposedly “freakish” physiognomy. The exhibition caused a scandal and Baartman was brought to trial.
Afterwards, she was sold to a Frenchman and taken to Paris, where she became the object of scientific scrutiny and painted by naturalists and zoologists in the Jardin du Roi. As the result of these paintings she became the object of a discourse used to justify European supremacy and orientalist notions of the deviant sexuality of African women.
Even long after her death, Baartman remained the property of an imperialism cloaked as rational enquiry: until as late as 1985, her brain and genitalia were on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Only in 2003 were her remains returned to South Africa.
Orlin’s is far from the first fictional representation of the woman London once knew as the “Hottentot Venus”. Only last year, the French-Maghrebian director, Abdellatif Kechiche released the film Vénus Noire about her life – a film which seems to be explicitly mocked in the present work when the screen displays in close up the face of a young (white) French woman who appears to have just been asked the question “Who is Sarah Baartman?” or perhaps, “What do you know about Sarah Baartman?” Her response, “She was the black Venus. A, er… Venus… who was black,” immediately provokes the four actresses onstage (Tambwe Bakambamba Elisabeth, Ann Masina, Dorothée Munyaneza, and Dudu Yende, who all play the part of Sarah Baartman – or of actresses auditioning for the part of Sarah Baartman) to yell at the screen, “Do I look black to you? My skin is brown not black!”
Already, several months before the trial of 1811, a pantomime (“The Hottentot Venus”) was performed at the New Theatre in London. Her exhibition, trial, portraiture and fictional representations must then all be viewed as different aspects of the racial discourse under the sign of which the body of Sarah Baartman has been progressively spectacularised over the course of several centuries. The challenge for Robyn Orlin then becomes how to make a piece of theatre which re-tells the story of, and pays tribute to, Baartman, without in the process exacting the same work of spectacularisation of which she has historically been the victim. This she achieves through the deft manoeuvre of exhibiting instead the audience to themselves.
This is not to say we are offered no stage action, no performance, no razzle dazzle, and left merely to contemplate our own mirrored being in some quasi-Cagean empty reversal. There is a strong, charismatic cast, dominated by the rambunctious figure of Dudu Yende. There is music, and of an almost bewildering variety: from electronic to unaccompanied vocal, En Vogue to Italian aria. There is even dance. At one point bananas are distributed to the audience, thus – as the punters began to peel and devour – releasing the fruit’s unmistakable scent throughout the auditorium. A true gesamtkunstwerk then.
But while the four actresses on stage are forever “auditioning” before a screen that will often take the role of the anonymous voice of authority, it is we who have been cast. This sleight of hand is performed smartly and adroitly in this play which remains at all times intelligent and provocative without ever ceasing to be funny and entertaining. In the end, I shall remember as part of the performance, the man a few rows back who absolutely refused, stoney faced, to get involved in even the most minimal fashion (he didn’t even clap at the end). His refusal to engage became as much a part of the story told in the theatre as the thoroughly engaging performances of the cast.