Nirbhaya, Ban This Filth! and The Fanny Hill Project highlight feminism at the Fringe 2013
Theatremakers Yael Farber, Alan Bissett and Tess Seddon tackle the subject from three different perspectives
This article is from 2013.
There used to be a time when feminism had to be disguised or excused in order for it to be palatable to the general public. ‘I’m not a feminist, but … ’ became a line used by those who were feminists in all but name, and a reminder that the word still held more than a little stigma.
But in the last few years an increasing number of people appear to be engaging with feminist thinking. Numerous protests, enabled through social media, have received mainstream attention, and achieved results too. There was the bringing down of UniLad, the No More Page 3 petition (currently sitting at more than 100,000 signatures) and the Everyday Sexism project, to name a few. And at this year’s Fringe there are examples of several shows grappling with serious issues concerning gender, without an excuse in sight.
Nirbhaya, which translates as ‘fearless one’, was the name given to the woman who was raped and killed by a group of men in a savage attack on a bus in Delhi last December. The brutality of that crime resonated across the world and led to a wave of protests in India calling for an end to violence against women.
Theatre director Yael Farber felt the impact of the event, even in her native South Africa. ‘There was something about that young woman’s rape and death that seemed to have broken through a lot of people’s defences,’ she says. ‘I’m quite tuned in to the subject matter but among the best of us you develop a particular kind of shell that you protect yourself with, against the statistics and the stories from around the world.’
After posting about the event on Facebook, Farber received a message from an actress based in Mumbai, the first step in what would lead to Farber travelling to India and spending several months creating Nirbhaya. Including testimonials from performers and non-performers, Farber hopes the show will contribute to a shift in contemporary culture.
‘When something like this happens to that young woman, people say we’re not going to be silenced any more. Then you do it, you get up on stage, you get up in front of 300 people a night and say “this happened to me”. Then you walk out of the theatre and someone is waiting to say “it happened to me too”.’
Farber returns to Edinburgh a year after the success of Mies Julie, her adaptation of Strindberg’s classic play, which received a hoard of five-star reviews. She had not initially intended to be back so soon but, given the nature of Nirbhaya, was keen to act while the possibility of change still hung in the air.
‘It can be brutalising to put something together very quickly because you have to all go out on a limb in many, many, many ways,’ she says, ‘but this time next year I don’t believe the zeitgeist will remain; already I can feel the tide of indifference building up.’
Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who died in 2005, spent decades fearlessly speaking out about violence against women. A provocative character, who was ridiculed just as much as she was admired, Dworkin was known for her uncompromising views on pornography.
In Ban This Filth! Scottish writer and performer Alan Bissett will bravely pitch himself against Dworkin in a show which looks at porn and feminism from a man’s perspective. As with Bissett’s previous shows – including last year’s Fringe success The Red Hourglass – Ban This Filth! is rooted in the writer’s life experience and required him to confront his own relationship to porn.
‘I thought if I’m honest about porn use, then that encourages people in their heads to be honest with themselves, because I know I’m going to be judged for it whatever I say. People are either going to be like “oh my God, I can’t believe that he’s actually admitting these things, that’s disgusting” or they’re going to be like “mate, is that all?”’
Through his show, Bissett hopes other men will engage with a little feminist thinking too. ‘For me, [the challenge to feminism is] how do you get the men? As a man, that’s why I think me doing this show is relevant. For the guys in that audience who think “holy shit, I thought I was just having a wank”, and you’re like “well, you are, but it’s an ideological wank, mate”. It’s a wank that’s bound up by the patriarchy. A wank is not a wank any more.’
The Fanny Hill Project is another show looking at pornography. It takes John Cleland’s 1748 novel, the first pornographic book ever published, and turns it on its head, using it as a starting point to examine how the sex industry infiltrates the media.
The show has what must be one of the most unusual background stories of any performance at this year’s Fringe. It was inspired by the experiences of one member of TheatreState, the company behind the project, who ended up working in a foot fetish club while trying to support themselves through an arts internship. The disparity between that experience and the media’s portrayal of sex work (the empowered, liberated depictions in shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl) led to a desire to explore society’s hyper-sexualised culture.
Tess Seddon, the show’s director, believes today’s media is rife with ‘misogyny [wrapped up] in thick levels of irony and humour’, making it especially difficult to critique or speak out about sexism. ‘The main thing about The Fanny Hill Project is that it encapsulates the mania of the media and how they treat young women as society’s prize,’ she says. ‘We’re exploring that madness, and how we’re all obsessed with gender roles, both women and men, and how confusing it is. We’re exploring how complicit the audience are in these events, like these panel shows where the audience are cheering and whooping, especially on Celebrity Juice every time they mention the word tits.’
From gender-based violence and pornography to the media representation of women, these shows are dealing with big, pertinent topics. Yet they are equally based in personal experience. Feminism might be a word that continues to generate mixed responses on the street, but these stories are likely to strike a chord with all who encounter them.
Nirbhaya, Assembly Hall, 623 3030, 3–26 Aug (not 12, 19), 4pm, £14–£16 (£13–£15). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £10.
Ban This Filth!, Scottish Storytelling Centre, 556 9579, 2–11 Aug, 9pm, £12 (£10). Preview 1 Aug, £8.
The Fanny Hill Project, Zoo, 662 6892, 4–26 Aug, 4.05pm, £8 (£6). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £5.