Before you read any further, do me a favour and follow this link to read the review of Bitch on Heat by Sumudu Samarawickrama on the Australian site Witness It’ll save me having to explain what happens in the show, you’ll be supporting another not-for-profit criticism website as well as this one, and you’ll be giving attention to an indigenous woman who got more out of Leah Shelton’s show than me, but is also incisive in critiquing its limitations.
Done that? Right then: let’s talk about hope. The day before I went to see Bitch on Heat I was compulsively reading about antisemitism in the UK: a survey designed and analysed by Dr Daniel Allington (King’s College London) that argues that antisemitism is now more widespread among people who identify as politically far-left than those who are far-right; a long thread on twitter by Frances Weetman summarising the submission by Jewish Labour Movement to the Equality and Human Rights Commission; and an older blog by Asa Winstanley discrediting the JLM. On returning home from Bitch on Heat, I stayed up late reading every word of this Medium post by Sara Gibbs on the same topic. I’m laying all this out because it’s the context within which I watched Shelton perform, a context that conditioned how I felt when watching: punch-drunk devastation mingled with guilt that it has taken me until now to dedicate proper attention to this fraught dialogue friends of mine have long been engaged in.
Basically, I went to Bitch on Heat feeling devoid of hope, crushed between the rock of a Labour party charged with institutional antisemitism, the hard place of a Tory party whose racism not only flourishes untrammelled but has a rising death toll, and the brick wall of a general election whose outcome is uncertain. And all of this is immediately relevant because of the role of Pandora within the show. As explained by Samarawickrama, Bitch on Heat opens with Shelton latex-wrapped and lip/tit-pumped to look like a grotesque Barbie, puppeteered by a booming male voice which narrates the Greek myth of Pandora. Coyly she opens the cursed jar of plague and pestilence to spread evil across the world, revealing, in an acute twist, another latex doll that she blows up. For Hesiod, accredited author of the Pandora myth, the figure of this evil was woman. For Shelton, the name of this evil is misogyny. “I’m sorry,” lilts Brenda Lee on the soundtrack: but these two plastic women aren’t sorry so much as bearers of each other’s sorrow.
“Only Hope was left,” Hesiod writes of Pandora’s fateful jar. Samarawickrama doesn’t mention hope and that’s because Shelton’s version of the myth pretty much dispenses with it. She holds the blow-up doll first with care, then with fury, every fibre of her body taut with disgust that the old materials she is using – songs and instructional texts and movie clips from the 20th century – still hold currency, are not outdated yet. There is a powerful moment when Shelton’s own voice is heard, but then the soundtrack launches in to Martha Wainwright’s ‘Bloody Motherfucking Asshole,’ a song from 2005: even at its zenith, it felt to me, Bitch on Heat despairs at the lack of positive change that can be demonstrated in a world where Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump holds an actual legitimate presidency. Humanity is thwarted and abused by its own inhumanity, evident everywhere from the writing of Hesiod’s contemporary Homer to the American constitution to Jewish persecution to the treatment of Palestinians to the homelessness crisis to the deaths of refugees, none of which would be categorised as a specifically “feminist” or “misogyny” issue.
In an interview with London Student, Shelton talks about how she likes to “almost trick people” to see her work by “using forms like cabaret and comedy”: “they’ll still be entertained but maybe I’ve tricked them into thinking about feminism for a minute”. And perhaps if you arrived at Soho theatre at 10pm expecting to see a raunchy, feisty, girl-power show, Shelton’s disgust and fury might blaze at you from the stage. But if you come to the show as a confirmed feminist, sunk in despair about all the intersecting hatreds coursing through the millennia, freighted with hopelessness at your own ability to see-without-seeing the cruelty in the world, then Bitch on Heat might come across less like the growl of an attack dog with the strength to maul its enemies, and more the yelp of a pitiful creature still not resigned to being kicked.
Bitch on Heat is on at Soho Theatre till 14th December. More info here.