Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Get Naked (Only Keep Your Clothes On)

Forgive me the heresy, but female nudity, on stage, is boring.

Once upon a time, I supported art that involved naked bodies, blood letting, rough treatment of the audience, anything that bellowed against the complacency of theatre that was predominantly aimed at the middle classes. I was bored by the script - it has been the foundation of British theatre for too long - disappointed by "new writing" and saw in the Live Art habit of using the body to shock a hope for performance that carried on the tradition of vital, energetic theatre that had produced art that got off the stage and took various debates forward.

I even encouraged burlesque in the hope that it would liven up the stage, and bring new ways of exploring sexuality and gender to public attention. That hope is largely lost, although Cherry Loco always impresses me, and Boy in a Dress is as unashamed of its burlesque roots as it is of its post-modern philosophy. And Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, although they languish in the same semi-professional state as much early cabaret, have a clear, bracing, political intensity.

But after Ther Fringe 2012, I am ready to reject nudity and all its meanings. At least, for a couple of months, until it finds a new meaning beyond being a signifier for emotional honesty. I might even be persuaded to support actual censorship if it encourages directors to stop telling actresses to get their tits out for the good of the play. They might have to think of creative ways to signify important moments.

And yes, I am using the word "actress", even though "actor" has been used as gender neutral for a while. I picked it because it is female nudity that is the standard.

The Shit is a great place to start: scathing attack on Italian society, performed by a nude woman. And there is one moment - at the end - when her nudity is important, when she covers herself in a flag. Yes, throughout the recitation, her body is present, to be examined, just like it is the subject of the examination of those the heroine wishes to impress. Yes, the audience is implicated by performing a male gaze exactly like those who are the villains of the piece. But does the audience acknowledge this?

Discussions about the use of nudity inevitably refer to other performers whp have bared all for their art. Karen Finlay, Ann Liv Young, Annie Sprinkle: all women. There are plenty of tits out in theatre, but the cock tends to remain holstered.

Any meaningful presentation of the female nude in theatre has been lost: last year's mostly wonderful Hotel Medea had the completely unnecessary appearance of a Greek army in motorcycle helmets and breasts beared. Since a huge point in any version of Medea is the tension between the masculine Greek world and the feminine East - Euripides' version takes this further by contrasting Medea's often female deities against Jason's male gods - this display of hooters was not only distracting, it undermined a central theme.

Interestingly, the version of Hotel Medea at Latitude had the breasts covered, possibly because there might have been children present or it was outside in the cold. The scene lost nothing.

For the record, Jason's crew were not Amazons: Hotel Medea focuses on exactly the gender conflict that Euripides made so crucial. It gains credibility, however, for the reveal of Medea's brother's penis. Equal opportunity nudity can soften the blow.

For another Italian example, I am Son had a topless woman. Thanks to a mask, her gender was not clear at first, but when she came on stage to receive applause , the sudden  appearance of a t-shirt was a reminder that male and female toplessness are not equal. In neither performance was nudity meant to titillate, but it is clearly a choice, and a choice that has implications for the reception of the performance.

There is something here about the difference between what is seen as "real" on stage, and what is "performed". That's a topic for another rant.

Finally, SexLifeis a short two-hander, staged inside what appears to be a peepshow booth. The plot is simple - it is only twenty minutes long. A couple, after the birth of their first child, find their sex life is dull. In an atempt to spice things up, the husband turns up dressed like Tom Curry out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's played for laughs, and it is only when the wife drops her robe that real sexual content returns to the couple. Here, the reveal of the female body, which has been discussed throughout, and mostly in negatibe terms, signifies eroticism. Some bloke in suspenders is a clumsy parody of real eroticism.

Although the reason for defending nudity is easy to explain - essentially, restrictions on what can be shown inhibit artistic expression and besides, it assumes that the body is vulgar and needs to be hidden - the same freedom of expression is not even handed and runs the risk of obscuring the true power of nudity in search of a simple signifier. Ironically, nudity on stage strips the body of its innate power. The meaning of nakedness replaces the nakedness itself.

Furthermore, it is predominantly female. Since the female body has an extra area that is supposed to be covered, the cock seems to be far too serious to be let out on stage: breasts are commonplace, the vagina is rarer but the cock is invisible. The naked body is not necessarily the only erotic strategy - the best burlesque relies on suggestion, and the boys in La Clique Royale are sexual because of their whole physicality, not because they whip off their pants. But as long as female nudity is more prevalent than male, the theatre is playing into the same value system that makes Page Three acceptable.

Of course, I have no answers: I am lucky that this is a blog and I don't have to conclude my analysis. All of these examples are from engaging, informed performances (if they want a rating, they are probably all four star shows. See my earlier posts for a few thoughts on that particular part of the critic-performer relationship). I just have a general sense that the use of nudity on stage has become lazy... although I have just remembered that there was a cock in Vanishing Point's Saturday Night.

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