It is the evening of Friday, 17 February and 11 people are on stage in the Young Vic’s studio space, talking about their experiences of sex work. In other productions, they might have come across as a tick-box list: there’s the dominatrix, the escort, the crack whore, the Nigerian woman trafficked as a sex slave; a slip of a woman whose self-esteem was crushed by an abused childhood, and the exquisitely forthright woman who refuses to be shamed for her work in a brothel. In this production, they quickly transcend their labels. The dominatrix, Governess Elizabeth, looks like Bettie Page, is studying a PhD in chastity – well, no one else had written about it – and is the kind of woman even the most committed anti-prostitution feminist might champion, seeing as a proportion of her work consists of closing the penis inside a clamp, to which she alone holds the key. Peter is a gay man who finds the dick-obsession and lack of imagination of his mostly straight male clientele quite tedious, and is still recovering from the death of his beloved partner of four years, a straight cis-woman who only loved gay men. The woman who works in a brothel combines this with singing in a care home and teaching drama in schools, one social service paying for the other: at least, until a criminal record narrowed her options. Every story is detailed, surprising, engrossing. And true.
It is lunchtime on Saturday, 18 February and Lyn Gardner is speaking on a panel called Starring Your Pain, convened to discuss the interaction of criticism with art made from personal experience of life beyond the scope of normativity. Her starting point is something American dance critic Arlene Croce wrote in 1994, that such work might be “beyond the reach of criticism … literally undiscussable”. Both on the panel and in the blog written later, Gardner bats away the absurdity of Croce’s position by quoting Susan Sontag: “a work of art may appeal to our sympathy” but it is not necessarily “validated by the worthiness of this appeal”.
What’s interesting about See Me Now is that it doesn’t appeal to sympathy: it appeals to a sense of human justice and fundamental shared emotions. When the performers talk about relationships, it is in the same way someone who is not a sex-worker might talk about relationships. When they talk about the benefits of their work, whether to other people’s mental health, or to people living with disabilities that ostracise them from non-disabled society, it is in the same way someone who is not a sex-worker might talk about the benefits of their work. What’s interesting about See Me Now is that it doesn’t appeal to sympathy: it appeals to respect.
It is the afternoon of Monday, 20 February, and Andy Smith is chairing a panel about the relationship between artists and audiences at the You, the Audience Symposium at the Manchester Royal Exchange. A young man sitting far enough away from me that his identity is blurry, so I’m just going to assume it’s white, middle-class, cis-gendered and straight, asks the question: what are we doing in these buildings? What is our work for? The panel offer some excellent answers, but I’m afraid I can’t remember any of them, because I’m still furious that no one in the room, least of all me, stood up and shouted: to change the fucking world.
See Me Now is a show that wants to change the world. The simple analysis is that it will fail: because the politicians who have the power to make the changes it demands, whether by decriminalising sex work, genuinely ending discrimination (against transgender people, against disabled people), or financing the social services that support sex workers, will not come. And even if they did come, they might leave thinking to themselves that there’s “no great, incisive point or unification of its many strands” (Time Out, three stars), or that it’s “a not always easy mixture of the rough and messy – a couple of lines are dropped – and the slick” (the Stage, four stars), or that it’s “somewhat unfocused” (the Independent, four stars), or even “frustratingly unfocused” and “never gets beneath the surface of any single character” (the Telegraph, three stars). The simple analysis is that it will fail, because it’s theatre and theatre can’t change the world.
It is the evening of Monday, 20 February, and 16 people are on stage in the Manchester Royal Exchange’s studio space, talking, but also dancing, about age, and hope, and love, and death. Eight of them are from the theatre’s Young Company, and range from coming up to GCSEs to studying at university. Eight of them are from the theatre’s Elders Company, and in their 60s or above. All of the old people are white. The young people come from various ethnic backgrounds. This immediately says something about generational inclusivity in British society. The show they have made together is called The Space Between Us and teases out multiple interpretations of what that might mean: the physical space between the performers, the experiential space between generations, the emotional space between artists and audiences. No one here is representative of anything, least of all their age: when one man speaks in detail of his skin, it is to remind us that all humans have skin; and when a woman speaks of her how she feels about dying, it is to remind us that all humans, whatever kind of skin they have, will die. The space between us, at an animal level, is thinner than tissue paper. It is the ancient, constantly reinforced, construction of hierarchy, privilege, advantage, that pushes us apart.
Halfway through The Space Between Us, the group recall a heated discussion about politics: an initially acrimonious conversation in which one generation accuses the other of apathy and in return is accused of greed, that slowly unpicks each generalisation through careful listening and attention, and in doing so comes to a stronger appreciation of the work each generation has done in society, and what each might still do. In that few minutes, the cast illuminate how easy it would be to change the world. The blueprint drawn in the theatre. The responsibility handed to everyone who watches to carry it forward.
It is the afternoon of Monday, 20 February and a different man, who might as well be the same man, asks another question, roughly as follows: “We’ve talked about x kind of relationships with audiences, and we’ve talked about y kind of relationships with audiences. But the thing is, which is right?” Somehow it hasn’t occurred to him that both might be right. That the problem isn’t complexity or a spectrum of possibility but the insistence on binary simplicity.
It is the evening of Friday, 17 February and a transgender woman called Pan is talking lightly, softly, of how she was born intersex, and so her parents – who already had two daughters – decided they might as well bring her up a boy. They clamped her within a category and Pan has spent the years since searching for the key. You say we do nothing politically, declare the young people in The Space Between Us, but look at all the work we’ve done for gender equality. Another transgender woman in See Me Now talks about coming out to her father, when she was 13, and how he accompanied her to Thailand for her breast implant operation. On press night, her father sits in the front row, beaming, proud as punch.
In each of those studio rooms, I glimpsed not only how the world is, but how it might be. See me now: not according to the labels assigned in an oppressive society that literally kills those who don’t fit within its narrow moulds of normativity, but how I am, in all my strangeness and familiarity.See the space between us. See how insignificant it is. See what you might be able to do to close it.
See Me Now is on until 4th March 2017 at the Young Vic in London and The Space Between Us was on until 20th February 2017 at the Manchester Royal Exchange.