Talking Movies

September 8, 2010

NSFW Theatre

NotYetRated_Poster

There’s a certain bizarre, maybe even troubling, trend at both of this year’s theatre festivals which nobody seems to be willing to talk about.

The press release for the international festival trumpeted the multi-cultural wonder of three Polish plays arriving to our shores, but the programme implies that Polish theatre is largely concerned with nudity and sex scenes to the exclusion of all else. There is of course a difficulty in discussing nudity in theatre as, with boring predictability, even noting it let alone questioning it will lead to shouts of prudery – as if that somehow constituted an argument let alone a discussion ending point. Do you remember the disastrous fiasco that was the Barbaric Comedies at the Abbey some years back? It was dripping with sex and nudity and to be sure audience members walked out, but many left not out of outrage but of sheer boredom, choosing the second interval in its interminable running time to execute a quick dash for the streets. There’s a certain element of that impression of nudity being a crude device to wake up the back-row of reluctant people who were dragged to a unfocused play in Factory 2 where you feel sure that the nudity in its 7 ½ hour running time will lead to nudges in the ribs to wake up the audience’s sleeping members.

Nudity in theatre is qualitatively different from nudity in film. Angelina Jolie is not actually present in a film, it’s her image from a shoot in a closed set the previous year, and the chances of you ever actually running into her to personally feel awkward are zero. In theatre the person appearing nude is very much present, and as for the chances of actually running into them later, the much vaunted Trilogy  (NSFW) features 50 local women dancing naked at the end of the play. Indeed the fringe this year seems obsessed with being racy. The Project has a dance production (NSFW) which uses as its webpage image a picture that to my mind has little relevance to the description of the show beside it and which makes booking a ticket for the show from that website an NSFW exercise that would get you blacklisted from most net-cafes and libraries. I’m deeply unsure where feminism is meant to stand on this.

Is it prudishness, or ‘just not getting it’ to suggest that these vanguard of feminism productions are missing something? If the meaning of a theatre performance is uniquely found, at least in part, through the audience’s reaction to it, then doesn’t that mean that the intentions of the performers can be reversed by an audience with the opposite motivations? The Gaiety staged Cabaret last year, working from the blueprint of Sam Mendes’ revival which made the play triumphantly queerer and more sexual, and featured nudity of a totally different order. At the end of both acts a group of naked actors stood with their backs to the audience and created first a Nazi image of glorious Aryans, and then, to end the play, the victims of the concentration camp showers. The effect of this nudity was incredibly chilling and its meaning could not possibly be altered. But, unless the organisers intend distributing questionnaires to ensure only those who know their Kate Millet will be admitted, couldn’t the meaning of the festival pieces be altered if unreconstructed chauvinists chose to treat them as mere pieces of titillation rather than the liberating feminist art intended.

Granted that one important intangible element of theatre isn’t this theatrical use, and especially promotional trumpeting, of nudity something we should be talking about?

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