The naked truth about the Edinburgh Festival
Jonny Ensall's festival blog
This article is from 2008.
Last week I went to review a show called Strippers & Gentlemen at C Venue on Chambers Street. In it, girls in corsets and black pants reinterpreted the gyrating dance moves of real strippers while members of the audience, free to move about the performance space, were treated to favourable sightlines on their hair-tossing, floor-writhing and bum-wiggling routines. The dialogue was a sketchy set of back and forwards between the strippers and the gentlemen – a sleazy mixture of fantasy and grim reality loosely based on a client/stripper relationship that slips into prostitution.
I took my girlfriend, assuming that it was going to a piece of serious issues-based theatre, and quite dull for it. We ended up standing there watching a very lithe and good-looking blonde girl contort herself on the floor a few feet in front of us. Cue beard stroking from me, and general efforts to show that I wasn't enjoying this in the wrong (that is, crudely sexual rather than artistically distanced) way. I later saw the mirror of myself in another man who, becoming separated from the pack of the wandering audience, became isolated close a woman who had just taken all her clothes off in the real dripping water of a simulated shower scene. His face was fixed in an intensely serious arrangement - eyes locked, unblinking on the scene; head cocked to one side, an umbrella stiffening his lopsided posture – not a hint of shock or glee on his face at all.
The issue of the 'wrong' way of viewing is an interesting one. Why was it that I could describe the show as 'overtly sexual' in my review, but at the time of course I couldn't be genuinely open to its sexual content. There was an objective distance there that I couldn't have overcome if I'd wanted to.
This distance exists, I would like to theorise, for two reasons. Firstly, after a handful of key festival experiences most people become desensitised to the sight of human genitals appearing spontaneously on stage. At the very first show I ever saw at the Fringe, many years ago, a man urinated into his own mouth and (at a different point) came prolifically over a radio. I've seen a woman pull a glitter-filled balloon from her anus, blow it up and pop the shit-smeared contents over the audience. I'm hoping to see more of that kind of thing, and hopefully much worse – but only in that vein of distasteful nudity that is truly and undeniably antisocial and all the more glorious for it.
In theatre, conversely, nudity is overused and usually in a way that isn't intended to bring down the tone of the performance but elevate it. As soon as somebody gets his penis out on stage you have to sit up and take notice. The physical fact of the penis doesn't matter in the slightest; the important thing is that its association with the production forces the issue of the play's interpretation. To see it as a cock, brought out as an exhibitionist prop rather an artistic device, is serious condemnation, especially for any actor who has been brave enough to go naked on stage. But I fear sometimes, whether consciously or not, nudity is used to force the audience into a positive appreciation of the show because the reverse is just too degrading for audience and performer alike.
Which leads into the second, and more curious reason why we can never get close to naked people, or sexual acts on stage. At the festival we usually have to treat sex as part of its context. When I see a woman with tassles on her nipples and only a thin strap of material wedged between her jiggling things I think, ah yes, a burlesque show, appreciable as a form of artistic performance, not just as a titty show. Whether or not I'm turned on is not the point. I might be, I wouldn't remember to tell you. I end up running backwards and forwards between arguments – 'To treat this as "a turn on" rather than "erotic" is a crude way of viewing a sophisticated performance. But then again it has be intended, on some level, as a turn on. Does this confusion mean I'm watching a post-modern deconstruction of what 'performative femininity' now means to empowered women, exhibiting sexual control over men like myself?' It's all very confusing and, the point is, it's never just boobs. We'll always have to intellectualise sex as long as it keeps this popular festival association with theatre and the high arts…
…but ditching all that near-pointless intellectualising for an evening, I'm off down to Jim Rose Circus tonight to watch someone fire blue paint out of her arsehole, and I hope to see you there too.