Sarah Daniels’ play Masterpieces was originally produced in 1983. It starts with a dinner party in which husbands tell rape jokes and put down their wives for not finding them funny. After she is shown porn by her friend Yvonne, Rowena undergoes a feminist awakening. Eventually she pushes a man in front of a train after he harasses her on the platform.
Director Melissa Dunne’s revival stages Masterpieces in period, complete with 80s costumes designed by Leah Mulhern, a jukebox of 80s music, and vintage covers of Playboy and Penthouse that paper the walls of Verity Quinn’s set. The revival is a timely one, in the sense that the issues Daniels’ play raises about pornography, rape culture and violence against women have not gone away. However, shifts in gender politics during that time can alienate the audience from the script.
In the world of the play, all the male characters are chauvinist pigs. They are open and unapologetic about it. These days, misogyny is more insidious. The problem with Masterpieces is that many of its scenes resolve themselves into debates between a female character and a male character, both of them stating positions (women against porn; men pro porn) without much subtext or nuance. There were points I found myself borne aloft on righteous outrage (yes, Rowena, shove him off the platform!) and wishing the three main female characters could abandon their husbands and go off together to live in a villa in Greece.
However, more often I found myself struggling to believe in the characters, mired in the static debates: could men really be that awful, women that naïve? The pace is not helped by the long scene changes, either to facilitate costume changes or just to indulge in another 80s track. The multi-roling of the cast of five for twenty-one characters is at times confusing and causes characters to merge into one; it is not always clear whether a character has changed their outfit, or an actor is playing someone else. I could not help wondering whether the play would work better on a larger stage. The production seemed a halfway house between realism and something more expressionistic.
Perhaps even more ageing to Masterpieces than shifts in gender politics is the changing technology of pornography. Daniels may present porn as ubiquitous in the homosocial world of offices and schools, but she could not have predicted the internet. According to the BBC, 14% of web searches are for porn. And, it needs to be said as the play makes no acknowledgement of it, it’s not just men who watch porn.
In a survey conducted by Marie Claire on women and porn, 31% of respondents said they watched porn every week, and 10% said they watched it every day. However, the majority of respondents felt conflicted about watching porn: 56% agreed with the statement ‘It turns me on, but I’m concerned about how the industry treats women and/or I feel it perpetuates negative stereotypes’, and 41% did not want anyone to know they watched it.
Masterpieces presents a butterfly effect: men telling rape jokes leads, if indirectly, to Rowena pushing a man under a train. This female against male retaliatory violence is the inverse of the violence against women that suffuses the play. Yvonne is clear that porn is male violence against women. While the play unpicks rape culture, it uncomfortably equates rape jokes, porn magazines, BDSM, rape, and snuff movies. Not all men? Not all sex? Not all porn?
Maybe new theatrical forms are required to stage a nuanced debate about pornography now. Something that can capture the messiness, the ambivalence, the emotions and shame that swim around this topic. Like RashDash’s We Want You To Watch, which makes visible the struggle to engage, the extremity of viewpoints, the lack of answers. Dunne’s production of Masterpieces is a valuable insight into a piece of feminist theatre history, but ultimately it remains a period piece.
Masterpieces is on until 19 May 2018 at the Finborough Theatre. Click here for more details.