Frequently described as a guru of Performance, the American professor and practitioner Richard Schechner is perhaps best known for his thesis of “environmental theatre”, the requirement that a performance think of itself as an ecology, in a series of transactions with the available space and the audience. Tonight his scratch performance of Imagining O, which blends the two stories of Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Pauline Réage’s notorious Story of O, takes place within the Jarman Arts Building up on the terraformed hills of University of Kent’s campus, where Schechner is currently a visiting professor. The postmodern trickery of the building, its walkways, obtuse atria, provide a novel environment for the promenade into the dark recesses of sexuality.
The erotics of O were described to me by the only male of tonight’s performers Pablo Pakula as “fundamentally heterosexual”, and there is much here to trouble the straight male gaze. For instance, upon entry we were confronted by a series of women stock-still, seated bolt-upright around the multiform space, heavily made-up, wearing resolutely sad expressions and high-heels, their knickers around their ankles. An red-blooded eye long-trained by the nip-slip and celebrity upskirt, might go straight for scopophilic gratification in that revealed private place between the legs. It is the second glance, at the women undone, that brings with it the complicated wash of guilt. What are the limits of pornography? What else might we miss in this way? To be jolted into an awareness of the way in which a masculine look, your look, is constructed was an experience of a devastating and precise piece of theatre.
This tension between the erotic journey, the voyeurism of an audience, and female sexual subject, plays out through the series of performances. These brittle dolls are, throughout, opened up to your gaze. As in the peepshow room, in which a curtain of fencing with knot-holes surrounds a girl in her knickers in her stylish boudoir, tittivating unawares. The act of prettification, of being made available, is played out in another performance, as a girl sits at a table applying foundation and makeup. You sit in front wearing headphones, listening to O’s entrapment in Sir Stephen’s lair, and feel the strange disjuncture of preparation and debasement, tear-stains through foundation, you suspect this rarely ends well. And yet there is joy in the exhibitionism, the jouissance of performance, when interacting with the audience.
While for the most part it is Ophelia providing the tragedy, and O providing the eroticism, one performance in the first dispersal reverses the polarity. Ophelia’s words are delivered with calm luxuriance, while O’s are sharp, edged with betrayal, as she tends to Ophelia’s hair.
This shifty relationship with text crystallises in the recurring motif, Ophelia’s line “we know what we are, but not what we may be”, accompanied by the insistence that we are written, floating the codes of power that make up the inscription. In a scripted encounter with O, played into a black room, happening live outside (the performance was recorded throughout on a number of cameras, live feeds of which were piped into a dramaturgy room where the audience could discuss the performance, an inspired documentarian move) Ophelia talks over her constructedness, more obdurate than the smooth French woman whose power of storytelling is predicated on giving herself over to the sovereign male. And while the erotics of submission are well explored, the final act, as we are led by our host, a large shaven-headed man in a white dress with a fantastically elaborate owl mask, outside, and in a canal of water we watch the women charge through, enthusiastically at first, but soon tiring, becoming piteous, their clothes clinging to their skin – has us aware that the complicated plight of submission debases not just those who suffer, but those that watch a loss of humanity. The words of that other smooth French woman Simone De Beauvoir, “one is not born a woman, one becomes one” echo in my head. The script of sexual becoming is seldom so imaginatively explored.