Monday, 1 September 2014

Feminist Theatre in The Glasgow School XXIII (part 2: a case study part 1))

It ought to be easy to define feminist theatre. Unfortunately, it consists of two words whose meanings evaporate under scrutiny. Theatre seems obvious - it's that thing with actors, isn't it? But Song of The Goat presented Return to the Voice during the Fringe, and critics said it wasn't theatre but a musical concert. A Band Called Quinn reworked Biding Time and it was half gig, half scripted drama (with plenty of video footage). The borders are porous, and much of my time as a critic is spent wondering whether I can claim Klanghaus as Live Art. 

Leaving theatre out of it, let's get to feminism. In Feminism Amplified , Kim France struggles with the paradox that PJ Harvey, rock diva who writes songs like Dress which nails the tyranny of female fashion, can deny feminism, while a Miss World contestant espouses it. The arguments around sex work - exemplified in Sister - often clash over whether feminism is about destroying exploitation or supporting self-determination. My insistence that Betty Grumble is a feminist dancer who shatters gender polarisation is mocked because she uses nudity in her routines. Feminism has been a broad church since the 1990s, when Camille Paglia claimed her feminism to defend pornography and Andrea Dworkin wrote feminist diatribes against it.

Ontroerend Goed - usually good for a scandal - presented Sirens at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. On the surface, it seems obviously feminist. The cast is all female, the subject matter ranges from beauty products through to fear of the lone male following a woman, via fantasias on pornography, fantasy and scientific exploitation. 

But Matt Truemann has a question.

So what is Sirens? Is it a feminist action, designed to effect change in its audience and beyond? Or is it a portrait of a feminist movement: a kind of theatrical readymade testifying to the ideas and concerns of those onstage? I suspect, both at once.

Apart from the rhetorical flourish, Truemann's point is simple: is this performance merely a passive litany of complaints, or is it trying to goad the patriarchy to change? Truemann continues, questioning the company's right to make such statements.

There’s still a problem of process here though: Ontroerend Goed, a male-dominated company, determine how we should see these young women and Sirens doesn’t admit or unpick the power structures that have, however indirectly or inadvertently, shaped it as a piece. At some level, we need to know who decided how these six women should be costumed, for example, and how that decision was reached?

By moving into a deeper level of construction, Truemann makes a valuable point (although if he read the programme, he might have known that the words, at least, were those of the women on stage). The content of a performance does not necessarily make the performance political. Like a good Marxist, he is concerned about the superstructure. It's like Simon Frith says about Bruce Springsteen (The Real Thing - Bruce Springsteen): he might sing about being an ordinary guy, but he is, in fact, a multimillionaire wearing old jeans.

There is less doubt in Joyce McMillan's review for The Scotsman.

Six young female performers, dressed in gorgeous ball gowns and standing at music-stands, examine their own attitudes to feminism, more than 40 years on from Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch.

This is where I start to doubt. There is no mention of The Female Eunuch, or feminist writing. There is a list of female celebrities (mostly called skanks, or something equally insulting) and, as McMillan continues:

There are glimpses of male sexuality at its most gross (with accompanying porn video), of the kind of everyday sexism and brutal misogynistic “humour” women still endure, and of the struggle of this generation of young women to square their sexual needs and fantasies – which may include graphic Fifty Shades-style fantasies of submission and abuse – with their sense of themselves as the absolute equals of men.

All of these are matters of concern to feminism, but in themselves do not have an intrinsic feminist message. Fifty Shades, The Musical Parody addresses the relationship of women to dirty fantasy, but it isn't being called a feminist musical. 

It is in the sequence of 'brutal misogynistic humour' that the feminism is most evident. Told in a deadpan, a series of jokes highlight how laughter can be a tool of oppression. (Interestingly, this exact technique was used in two other shows at the Fringe: Milk Presents Self-Service and Polska at Dance Base. Mocking sexist jokes is pretty easy). 

Although I agree with McMillan's analysis, I'd argue that the women are not talking about their attitude towards feminism, but their attitude towards the patriarchy. It is a subtle difference, but feminism is not put under scrutiny - as Matt Truemann suggests the superstructure ought to be examined.  

No comments :

Post a Comment