The present moment feels like a more pertinent time than ever to ask how far we have really come in establishing gender equality. Topless models still stare out from page 3 as vacuous women’s magazines obsess over Kate’s baby weight. Female rape victims continue to find themselves blamed with cries of “she was asking for it”, while a sexually abused 13-year-old can be labelled “predatory” by the legal system. Misogynist humour remains a staple of the stand-up circuit, shrugged off with defences of “it’s just a joke”, and women who campaign for change of any kind face furious torrents of online abuse.
A feminist piece about modern representations of women is not short of targets, which is perhaps where TheatreState’s fierce but confused satire falls down. Its stated focus of criticism is the media, as stressed by the glossy magazines strewn across the stage and intermittently flicked through by its performers, but it is also compelled to attack the wider issue of persistent and pervasive sexism in today’s society. The ambition is admirable and the questions necessary, but The Fanny Hill Project finds itself uncomfortably torn between dealing with symptom and cause.
As the title suggests, TheatreState’s new show uses John Cleland’s controversial erotic novel as a starting point to explore how much has really changed since its publication in the 18th century. As a story about a woman told by a man for his own purposes, this text offers an intriguing reference point for the thwarted narrative attempts of TheatreState’s protagonist, who instead finds herself repeatedly cast in the role of a passive object. The use of Cleland’s novel, however, is minimal, feeling tacked on rather than integral. The depressingly continuous line that the piece is attempting to draw between misogyny past and present is broken, with Fanny Hill and her modern counterpart Ciarra seeming instead like two detached examples.
In the central attempt to tell her story, Ciarra is placed in crazed competition with other performers determined to rob her of her voice. She is interrupted and undermined; her narratives are appropriated or silenced in the same way that modern society steals, distorts and hides so many women’s stories. Emerging from this, there are some undoubtedly powerful moments. A vicious assault of sexist jokes sharply underlines how humour is still given as an excuse for misogyny, while the snatching of Ciarra’s microphone by another female performer during a karaoke rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ suggests that one woman’s advance does not necessarily improve the situation for the rest of her sex.
Despite brief glimpses of brilliance, however, the piece as a whole never quite slots together. Although the manic messiness is arguably appropriate, suggesting the frenzy of the media and the confusion of the many contrasting roles that women are asked to fill, the piece still has the flavour of a show in development. Ideas and images are abundant, but the containing structure for them is lacking.
TheatreState are at their best when making their audience grubbily complicit in the abuses of representation that they place on stage, implying that this is a problem deeply embedded in society rather than one that we can simply recoil from. By the end, as the female performers pose and twirl, spectators are invited to become just that – voyeurs, participants in the act of objectifying the women presented for their eyes. The only choices that remain available are to look or look away.