Ontroerend Goed, the Belgian theatre collective behind Sirens, are known for confronting and shocking their audience. True to form, Sirens certainly has challenging moments – including a bombastic opening and some authentically disturbing snapshots of everyday sexism.
Sirens unashamedly and unapologetically proclaims that, yes, today we still have to fight against a tired tradition of sexism. It admits that it can only speak from its own privileged European perspective. It reminds us that women can be the perpetrators of dull cultural mythologies about our own sex. It records the complexities and contradictions of being a woman today: hating other women for hating other women, or criticising attractive female celebrities whilst also claiming to be a champion of the feminist cause.
But Sirens didn’t shock me. I felt as though we were reminded of some important realities, but that we hadn’t been told anything new. As a self-identifying feminist, I will read writers who argue and debate about contemporary feminism, and I will dutifully go to see a performance about feminism at Summerhall.
It is tempting to re-shelve some aspects of the work as past-it ’80’s feminism, particularly after a section dedicated to delivering misogynist jokes, deadpan. Then I remember all the sexist jokes and comments I struggled to tolerate while working in a bar last year. And the other day, I bristled when a female colleague of mine insisted on showing me videos of Taylor Swift dancing like a twit on a loop edited together by some online benefactor.
Altogether, Sirens is a series of concertos that are harmoniously blended and discordantly jarred, creating an explosive cacophony of narrative and choral wonder. It is artistically and structurally stunning, yet it is not seeking to creative new narratives for its audience, nor is it attempting to find a new audience.
It is hard to pin down exactly why I felt this. I like to go into shows without any expectations, so I Googled Ontroerend Goed only after watching. I found out that Sirens was directed by Alexander Devriendt, the artistic director of Ontroerend Goed. I was surprised that a man had directed it. Admittedly, this sounds like a regressive observation. Why shouldn’t a man direct a piece about the female experience, performed by females, with female testimonies? It is actually quite refreshing, even necessary. Male directors have directed feminist works many times before. But the difference with Sirens is that, throughout, the performance appears to signify as a true testimony of what it is to be a woman.
In a way, this means that it achieves what it sets out to do, but I still felt duped. Not because I don’t think a man should direct a performance about feminism. Not because I think that the female voice is misrepresented when a man directs it. It is because Sirens intends to present the plurality of female testimony, but there is no male perspective. The final line in the publicity statement for Sirens is: ‘We’re sirens. And the stage is ours.’ Surely part of the female experience is also part of the male experience somehow? Ordinarily there is no reason why there should be a male voice, but since the director of the production is male and one of the dramaturgs, Joeri Smet, is male, it makes the work slightly disingenuous. So if Sirens self-identifies as a work that speaks wholly through the female voice, it does not come across as entirely believable.
Of course, it is still important to talk about existing sexism and to come to an understanding about contemporary feminism. Sirens is an empowering production that achieves this through bold, engaging performances from the cast.
However, I felt a good deal less empowered at the end of the performance when a grinning man turned to his female friend and said: ‘So do you feel empowered?’ I turned to my male friend and repeated the same question. He replied that he felt most decidedly the opposite.