Camden People’s Theatre’s executive director Amber Massie-Blomfield has asked “Why is theatre so prudish about sex?” in The Independent. You couldn’t level the same accusation at the theatre’s programming: not least during Calm Down Dear, its festival of feminist work. People have joked – often! – about the CPT as being somewhere where nudity is so common that it’s weirder for performers to keep their clothes on. But it’s a bubble. Unsexualised female nudity is radical, still, in a culture where every inch of a woman’s body is up for public consumption apart from a dwindling pubic triangle that’s somehow completely beyond the pale.
We’re prudish about sex. And doubly prudish about female sexuality, and the female body when it steps outside the long-limbed hypersensuality that’s allowed to sell perfume on daytime TV and glossy mags. Objectification, especially sexual objectification, means denying the person who’s being treated as an object their own subjectivity, agency, and ability to make their own choices. So when female performers use the objectification of their bodies for creative ends, it’s incredibly powerful.
The first time I saw female nudity on stage that didn’t feel like it was covered by a clause in a contract somewhere, that felt anarchic and self-determined, it was at a GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN performance. Lucy McCormick and Jennifer Pick flashed the audience in sequinned dresses in a way that felt defiantly unsexy, like a game, and a way of playing with an audience primed and confused with showtunes and muddled lighting states. Lucy McCormick’s vagina is a kind of trademark, a way of signalling radical intent and breaking her performances down into a much earthier kind of sexuality than the musical theatre glitz of her presentation and showmanship.
The second someone steps on stage they become a thing, as well as a person: two-dimensional like the little cardboard people in a pop-up paper theatre. Their whole being reduced (or expanded) into whatever they do with an hour of your time. Women, even more so. Female performers are blessed and cursed at the same time with a huge visual toolbox that men don’t quite have: siren, strumpet, queen, all evoked in a second. Yes, there are some famous images of manhood. Humphrey Bogart. Lawrence of Arabia. Mel Gibson.
But something about Ira Brand’s performance Break Yourself suggested the thinness and strange vulnerability of images of masculinity. She took on a drag character, Ollie, a graphic designer, into Bruce Springsteen. And as she (as he) tried to master Bruce Springsteen video for “Dancing in the Dark” the sound of a voice coach’s instructions tracked her every move. So much of them were about solidifying, calcifying, curling inwards into a bare performance of masculinity that’s the opposite of the creative excess of drag queen’s hip-waggling, sequin-popping routines.
If Break Yourself emphasised insecurity, the vulnerability which comes from performing your or other genders, Filmland! from CRANK was a joyous carnival of gender fluidity. A mix of warmth and history and horror, all flickering together. A radical reimagining of the early years of cinema, it tells the story of imagined luminary Harriet Hartley, who made a career in drag as Fred Butterworth. Eli Harris might have stumbled on a few lines, but she was pretty much unique for her comfort playing a male role, inhabiting suits with seamless style.
Her confidence, and the production’s joyful fluidity, flicking from scene to scene, film to reality, with restless electricity, made the sexual violence inflicted on her frustrating. Stepping outside gender boundaries is so rarely allowed to go unchallenged.
Louise Orwin’s performance, by contrast, found its power by staying firmly inside the lines drawn for women in film, embroidering them into something baroquely nasty. In A Girl And A Gun, Louise Orwin is a seductress in a red dress, vulnerable and powerful at once. She’s also a kidnapper, a little bit, taking a male performer hostage to play the role of her oppressor on stage (originally, she requisitioned a male audience member). He reads his lines cold from an autocue, stumbling awkwardly as it races too fast or tumbleweed slow, turning his enforced American accent to treacle. He wears chaps (normally, he can’t find the buckles so they flap oddly round his legs), a neckerchief and a cowboy hat.
Orwin’s previous performance Pretty/Ugly was an astonishingly densely researched look at the objectification of teenage girls, kept tightly in her grasp by slick segments that drew on months of embedding herself, anthropologist-like, in the world of vulnerable teenage girl YouTubers and the mostly-men who prey on them. This performance is slick, too, but it’s not so firmly in her grasp.
The first time I saw it, her cowboy was a big kid desperate to get his hands on the box of toy guns, ready to play and improvise with the script and to obey its commands even as they moved out of video-game fun. The second time, her cowboy felt more aware of the social significance as what he was being asked to do: to spit in her face, force her to her knees. You could see him visibly oscillate between wanting to give her what she needed to make her performance, and her point, as he navigated his own boundaries too.
Baby Face was soaked in the male gaze, too. It looked at the uncreative side of female expression, at being forced back into childhood by infantilising cultural tropes. And it was full of the pain of living in a world that encourages boys to be men, but woman to be girls – trying to regain the dewy skinned perfection and skinny limbs of twelve years old, with none of the unappealing awkwardness and frumpy homework. Kate Dyer squeezed into a minute baby gro or toddler’s leggings or schoolgirl outfit for grossly sexualised dances that were even more uncomfortable to watch then they must have been to perform. A soundtrack of cheesy hits chosen for its gross repetition of “baby”, “baby”, “baby” accompanied her performance. Like Orwin, she borrowed a man (this time, from the audience) to carry her about the stage, in a mix of objectified powerlessness and total control.
Johanne Hauge wasn’t playing the same games. Her An Unauthorised Autobiography found its power by exploding the rules constraining female behaviour and lived experience, creating something nasty, compelling, a little directionless: like watching a multiway drunken brawl from a night bus window. At a table, she translates as her mother describes over Skype exactly how she used to do make-up in the 80s, loading her eyelids with bright blue. She’s in childhood land, remembering the surreal insults that stuck with her at school. Over at the mike, she switches to stories of nearly-Nazi sex and young adulthood. Stepping out into the audience, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She makes audience members suckle red wine from her booze-filled pregnancy bump, in a gross riff on motherly love.
Oh Baby by Rebecca Biscuit didn’t have the same slap-you-round-the-chops horror, but it was no afternoon tea spread either. She explored her desire not to have children, and the pain of women’s lived experiences of birth and motherhood sitting under a swing set, and wearing a pregnancy bump (if it had wine in it she was keeping it to herself). What emerged was a brilliantly nightmarish howl of pain – the kind of howl that’s usually chloroformed by a society that needs mothers, and motherhood, to be okay. To quietly get on with it. To subscribe to the mellow maternal warmth her soundtrack gave us, a kind of aural nest of 70s-raised ma-favourites with a shoeless Mama Cass figure at the centre of it, leaping in a shapeless caftan. The performance was the opposite of comforting: oppressive as a thick warm dressing gown you fall asleep in, then wake in sweating terror as it starts to twist round and strangle you in the night.
Motherhood is often imagined in images: madonna and child, pastel-perfect consumer goods, photo-ops and adult faces that disappear behind smiling babies on Facebook profiles. Or hidden and effaced behind comfortably concrete, gleaming white medical certainties. These performances make a new kind of visual language that’s rooted in the emotional and physical realities of conception, miscarriage, pregnancy and birth. And they’d be impossible without the performer’s willingness to exploit their own bodies for every drop of symbolic power.
Using objectification to make a political point or an artistic statement isn’t straightforward, and sometimes backfires. FEMEN screen pretty, thin women to stage their nude feminist, often Islamophobic protests – and a recent expose found a male impresario lurking, Wizard of Oz like, behind the circus of flower-crowned agitators. Or Miley Cyrus’s sexual empowerment, whose every radical flourish aligns conveniently to the aims of a music industry that’s thrilled to be able to sell images of her body, given attractive edge but not violence by cropped hair and imagery of drug addiction.
Women can only exploit the objectification of their bodies for artistic ends if they’re in control economically and artistically. If the resulting images are kept in context of their performed sexuality, not circulated. And Camden People’s Theatre is small and safe enough to make sure that can happen. Woman’s Hour, at last year’s Calm Down Dear, used Brian Logan’s voice (“You have one hour, girls!”) as a tongue-in-cheek framing device, a narrative oppressor limiting their performance to the length of a Radio 4 women’s special. But for most female performers, the limits are all too real: men still overwhelmingly have control of galleries, theatres, gig venues and concert halls, and however enlightened they are that places limits on what women can do.
Brilliant artist Megumi Igarashi was recently released from jail in her native Japan for distributing a digitised model of her vagina for 3D printing. (A double standard, in a country that hands out phallic lollies at an annual penis festival.) The grim reality of her persecution, contrasting with the smiling subversive kitsch of images of her paddling downstream in her vagina canoe, is a depressing reminder that outside a few safe spaces, female artists aren’t universally free to use their bodies for art, as well as porn. Pubic hair is enough to get chucked off Instagram, even staid old Madonna paintings and Madonna photos alike have their nipples airbrushed away for newspaper consumption, and the Guerrilla Girls decades of campaigning for exposure for female artists in galleries (not just acres of pillowy nudes) has been honoured, not by a concerted response from a male-dominated art world, but by a collection of bone china mugs and slogan-bearing tea towels in the MOMA gift shop.
Pockets of safety like the CPT are few. And it’s worth noting that most of the women using their bodies and sexualities are, from the outside at least, able-bodied, white, attractive. But in the rest of the theatre world, female objectification is a tool for other people to use, a plot device, and an inevitable part of being a woman on stage. So maybe we need more places where the female body can be frightening, weird, intense, grotesque – as well as sexy and saleable. To allow women to exploit the full palette of objectification which centuries of the male gaze have created: and to create some new tropes, too.
Calm Down Dear took place at Camden People’s Theatre from Sept 15th – Oct 4th.