What do I want from feminist theatre (or comedy)?
What do I expect from feminist theatre?
What IS feminist theatre?
It feels like there is a difference between theatre which is feminist and Feminist Theatre – one which lies in both its marketing and its content. I feel like a show which is sold as Feminist Theatre is more likely not to have a single narrative, but fractured scenes. I feel like it will make me angry, but in a way which is cathartic rather than frustrating. I feel like it will have shouting and menstrual blood and mess and dancing. I feel like its politics will be firmly in its text rather than its subtext.
What I don’t know is what those politics will be. And obviously this is because what feminism itself is can is extremely disputed. Whether it’s a radical ideology or a lifestyle choice. What it fights for. Whether it leans in or leans out. Who it is represented by. Whether it feels dangerous or safe. But often whichever approach is chosen it can feel like it can’t quite get to grips with the wider discourse.
For the most part I try to steer clear of saying that Twitter (and social media in general) has ruined things. But when going to see Feminist Theatre I often feel frustrated and I realise it’s because I’ve thought about and seen conversations about gender and feminism too much. I just feel like a short show often can’t match the nuance of the discussions I see online. I know that sounds ridiculous (social media?! NUANCE?!) but both the volume of (often dissenting) opinions and the availability of shared reference points means both that there can be a lot to think about, and a lot that successfully finds humour from it as well. And obviously this isn’t just from social media – most women who have thought in the slightest about feminism will have encountered so many conflicting and supporting arguments about gender and sex and power that it’s difficult to sum up this maelstrom of thought in an easily digestible theatrical thrill.
Which is all to say that I don’t think the fact I didn’t like Queen Cunt is ENTIRELY the show’s fault.
Most of what I know about Frida Kahlo I learnt from Twitter. Much of it I learnt from a frustration with the commercialisation of her image, with notebooks and wallets with her face filling gifts shops. People instead talking about her communist politics, her way of approaching gender, disability, colonialism in her art.
There is a sketch in Queen Cunt about Kahlo. In it she paints, she talks about her sex life, she talks about not being able to have a child. All of these things (while they weren’t in this particular example) could be really revealing, political, so I tried not to be disappointed that her explicit political views weren’t in the sketch. And then the sketch comes towards its conclusion. ‘Frida’ asks people in the audience what makes them feel free and gets some answers – eating chocolate, singing, having a wank (a big cheer from the audience). She gets us to close our eyes and imagine the thing that makes us feel free – and you know what ladies and gentlemen? It turns out THAT is the revolution.
And that moment feels emblematic of some of my problems with the show. For all the talk of radicalism in its copy, it feels more closely allied with notebooks with vaginas on the front and memes about drinking too much gin than anything that involves grappling with the feminist issues of today. There’s no problem with that – we all need a little Girl Power now and then – but the way that it treats conversations that have been had and jokes that have been made for years as subversive, and presents its issues onstage (from porn to men’s rights activists to plastic surgery) with little more engagement than a funny voice, feels deeply unhelpful.
I understand that this is a sketch comedy show, and I understand that not everyone shares my politics and I understand that not every fact about a person has to be in everything about them, but surely something more interesting, more feminist, more FUNNY could have been done with Kahlo’s story. And that’s my main problem with the show as a whole. I could forgive its slightly lackadaisical politics if it was just funnier. While both performers (Deborah Antoinette and China Blue Fish) are very talented, and there are a couple of moments of absurd delight (from a vagina spider dance to the cartoon-y characterisations of the Justice for Men and Boys Party), the concepts for each sketch feel underdeveloped. There are three basic assumptions in the show;
1) Saying the word ‘cunt’ is bold and funny
2) Making a pretty basic observation about women’s lives in a silly voice is subversive and funny
3) Certain people (Kahlo, old women, Theresa May, the Virgin Mary) having sex is shocking and funny
None of which are necessarily false, but these things alone can’t hold up an almost 2 hour long (interval included) comedy show. And the fact that so much of it feels underdeveloped make moments where they touch on serious issues, such as assault, uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons – it feels more like issues being name-checked than confronted in any meaningful way.
It’s often funnier when it tries less hard to fit in all these markers of a Feminist Show – my favourite bits were actually the most meaningless. During the transitions where Antoinette and Fish are changing their costumes, performing stage manager Maeve Bell is onstage, resetting props, cleaning up mess and generally clowning around while wearing an anatomical model of the female reproductive system. Bell’s warm, silly style make these sections feel much more effortlessly funny.
There were definitely people having fun at the show. The experience of sitting stony faced among a crowd having a good time made me feel like some cliché of a humourless, grumpy critic. I am sure there is much to love in the show, but for me it was a frustrating experience.
Queen Cunt was on at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, from 9-10 November.