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Unprotected
Bodies in Transit
both Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe


Andrew Haydon
posted 21 August 2006

Prostitution has exercised a powerful hold over the imagination of writers for centuries: from the whores of classical myth, through the bawds of Chaucer, the many punks of Shakespeare and the Restoration, up to Emma Bovary, Wedekind's Lulu, and Brecht's Naughty Lola and, hell, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Recently the sex trade has also become a nigh-on continual subject for documentary examination, first as tragedy, then as endless rehashed farce on Channel Five. So it is little surprise that this year's Fringe offers several of its own takes on the oldest profession.

Liverpool Everyman Theatre's Unprotected is sold on a false prospectus. Its blurb and publicity claim that it is a piece of verbatim theatre which 'captures the true essence of the issues that surround the real lives of those involved in the very relevant sex trade debate [sic].' In fact, the play is far more tied to specifics. In 2003 Hanane Parry and Pauline Stephen - two prostitutes working Liverpool's streets - were murdered in particularly grisly fashion, with their body parts distributed round the city in bin bags. These murders, the subsequent calls for a 'managed zone,' and the more recent government adoption of a 'zero-tolerance' approach to prostitution form the core of the play.

The issues explored here are quite different to those in, Bodies in Transit, which deals with the trafficking of 'sex slaves' from eastern Europe. For much of Unprotected, prostitution is sidelined by a discussion of the effects of crack cocaine on the city of Liverpool, which, on the evidence presented, appears to be the sole reason that anyone ever becomes a prostitute. Another difficulty with the piece is the tiny number of interviews staged. Only one sex worker's story is told in any detail, while both the mothers of the two murdered women are interviewed at great length. This is problematic in itself as their stories, while undoubtedly tragic, irresistibly recall the infamous Spectator editorial claiming that the people of Liverpool were 'hooked on grief' and lend the drama the feeling of deliberate emotional pornography akin to tabloid 'it happened to me' true life stories. Elsewhere, two of everything seems to be the order of the day. There are two 'Johns,' two social workers, two local councillors and two residents of a proposed managed zone presented. Verbatim theatre is a fascinating medium, but ultimately, it can only ever be as good as its interviewers and their subjects. Here both are unimaginative, while the interviewees are conspicuously limited by a lack of insight, mired in self-righteousness, self-pity, self-aggrandisement, self-justification and reliance on clichés.

Worse, though, is the staging. At a festival where verbatim theatre has provided the runaway hit of the Fringe in the form of Gregory Burke's Black Watch - highly praised not only for its form and subject but also for astonishing sense of spectacle - it is embarrassing to watch the dreadful lack of stage-craft on display here. Not only is the positioning of the actors perfunctory at best, but the production also introduces an array of confused conventions: one moment a character is unconvincingly addressing their comments to the entire audience; the next, they appear to be speaking to another character, who most probably was not in the same room as the speaker at the time of their interview. The convention is clumsily lifted wholesale from Max Stafford-Clark's far more stylishly realised Talking to Terrorists, in which similar shifts of address drew neat allusions and parallels. Here they merely look like a device which has been misunderstood and badly applied.

The illusion of absolute undiluted documentary truth is a dangerous one, especially when the 'facts' are being used to advance a particular school of thought under the guise of reportage. There are moments when one character, with whom the playwrights have an obvious sympathy, is allowed to make what is effectively a party political broadcast (the character in question being local councillor), replete with rousing music and dizzying lighting effects. There is no attempt here to also give fair hearing to dissenting voices. No. This is the worst sort of didactic, preachy, self-righteous tub-thumping, dressed up in cheap sentimentality.

Moreover, it is a play which revels in the victim status it confers on the prostitutes it depicts and, to an extent, their customers. There are no jokes in this script. There is one badly judged, embarrassing attempt at comedy, in which a pair of aging prostitutes bicker over some clothes left in a drop-in centre - but this is so caricatured, that one is left baffled by its inclusion. At the same time, leaving out any comment on Liverpool's most famous kerb crawler - Wayne Rooney - and his dalliance in the fleshpots of Croxteth - is gutless. The sheer farcical energy of the Rooney story would run the risk of derailing the meticulously precious atmosphere built around these stories. Its inclusion would also have varied the one-note tone of endless misery, and provided a much-needed second opinion of how issues surrounding prostitution are presented in the wider world.

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Also based on extensive interviews, Bodies in Transit's writer Nina Larissa Bassett and solo performer Iben Hendel Philipsen have synthesised the stories told by trafficked sex-workers in their native Copenhagen into the single narrative of Marija, an imaginary composite figure. The tale deals with the forced prostitution and organised crime which is rife in many cities - what is true of Denmark is equally true of London (although apparently not Liverpool). This is the prostitution of brothels and pimps rather than solo crack addicts wandering the streets. It is a discussion not about drug addiction, sex and shame, but of relentless slavery and rape after rape after rape.

In one way, the ability of the writer to self-edit becomes of a useful tool to the company. They are able to avoid the pitfalls of the gauche interviewee; are far freer to re-work material that does not suit them, fitting everything into a tightly constructed monologue for many voices, instead of tying together recalcitrant fragments of speech.

Philipsen's performance here is hard to fault. Granted it relies on a certain level of stereotyping and broad strokes to portray the 19 characters of the story, but the performances are well defined and realised. Similarly, the execution of the physical aspects to the performance - there is the occasional obligatory nod to the stylised representational movement of post-Frantic Assembly fashion - is competent. All too often these 'dance' elements simply look like a layer too far, recalling showcase-y 'look at what else I can do' showing off far more than adding meaningfully to the stories being told.

So if there's nothing especially wrong, why doesn't it work? Firstly there is the length - after a while even unremitting tragedy starts to pall dramatically, no matter how callous it feels to admit it. Beyond this, while the elements of the imagined trafficked woman are undoubtedly rooted in fact, much of the writing around it - the more speculative, 'poetic' attempts to describe how she was feeling - felt wholly imposed. A crude joke early on concerning the number of holes in which a woman can be fucked provides an ongoing image where the narrator tells us she feels as if 'the holes are joining up,' and she is becoming 'a black hole, a void.' This runs so close to sounding like a satire of textbook feminism from the 'writing in the margins' school, that it completely undermines the factual account.

Worse are the wholly unrelated 'fantasy' sequences in which the narrator becomes some sort of idealised shopping channel make-over girl advising firstly on make-up tips, and latterly on how best to bite off a man's cock. The direct message here: that cosmetics and shopping are all prostitution as well, and that men should be castrated. There is nothing to suggest this is intended ironically. Perhaps these are supposed to be the internal monologues of the sex worker herself. Perhaps not. In either case, they served to completely derail any insight by transforming the piece from committed investigation into undergraduate posturing.

It is interesting to consider how the political left has shifted from the position of Brecht, who reputedly slept with hundreds of prostitutes, and depicted them in his plays as slightly glamorous denizens of the same romantic underworld as artists and thieves, to this portrayal as symbols of female oppression. This is partly due to the shifts in nature of prostitution; no one can condone slavery and rape, but the rest starts to look like conservative prudishness, dressed up in concern of a sort very similar Victorian philanthropy.

For better or worse the terms of the debate on prostitution have moved a very long way from the ground being trodden by these two plays. 'Lad mags' like Nuts and Zoo discuss the price of sex, 'pimp' has become a badge of pride in yoof-speak, and Channel Five is now showing a comedy series depicting the 'hilarious lives of four hookers'. These developments reflect little of the realities facing those who sell sex for money, but failing to recognise that simple-minded horror stories do not give the whole picture does no one any favours. These are plays which seek no more than to confirm the prejudices of those who already agree with them. Preaching to the choir has never changed anything, much less saved any fallen women.

 

 
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