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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007

Assembly Rooms Universal, Edinburgh

Andrew Haydon
posted 28 August 2007

In 1999 Fecund were one of my favourite companies on the Fringe. Their chilly, minimalist, deconstructed Cherry Orchard stood as an aesthetic benchmark for many years, prefiguring Katie Mitchell’s recent production of Waves at the National. The company disappeared from my radar for a long while a couple of years later, and I assumed they had become defunct. But, no, they are back with a new production called Special.

I suspect that being a fan of Fecund as a theatre company put me in the minority for the audience for their new show, which promised a look at BDSM ('bondage, domination and sadomasochism') and CBT ('cock and ball torture'). A majority of the mid-sized audience of which I was a part looked very much like they were there for the subject matter. Subject matter that made for a nerve-wracking pre-show tension build for me, since I am probably the most squeamish person imaginable, and so the sight of writer, director and performer John Keates dancing with thuggish menace, while brandishing a large and lethal looking kitchen knife promised an hour of potential misery watching painstakingly recreated genital torture.

Happily, Fecund are still a theatre company not a live sex show (although disappointed visitors on this score may take comfort from the intensive targeted flyering taking place at the exit of Special for another show with publicity suggesting a rather more racy remit). So: no one gets naked, no actual mutilation takes place, and nothing even faintly attempting stage-prop verisimilitude is attempted. Not a drop of stage blood is spilled. Thank God. The two actors playing the couple whose relationship is portrayed remain clothed in the same t-shirts and jeans throughout, with descriptions of what they are ‘actually’ wearing delivered deadpan into the always-on radio mics taped to their cheeks. The overall aesthetic is highly theatrical, and wholly refuses any of the potential prurience or erotica implied by the subject.

The show’s format runs from ‘ritual’ to ‘ritual’ – with different explorations by the couple of what they can take and what turns them on, building up to greater and greater feats of, er, intimate torture as the relationship develops. The girl’s surname appears to change part-way through, suggesting a timescale which includes the couple’s marriage. The piece also boasts an achingly hip compilation soundtrack that runs throughout the entire show. This was mostly far too cool or obscure for this reviewer - who only managed to recognise songs by Lou Reed and Mazzy Star - to describe adequately.

It is hard to detect immediately the show’s intended effect. The piece acknowledges early on that it is a depiction of one specific relationship which exists on a spectrum of preferences in the BDSM continuum. Therefore, one is presumably not intended to extract much generality from the material shown. It is not especially a ‘defence’ – should a defence be needed - of the practices depicted. Nor is it an explicit championing of them. It doesn’t seek to psychologise the participants too closely, and although there are stabs at the characters’ rationales for their non-mainstream tastes, these seem to be personal theories rather than outward-facing explanations rendered in layman’s terms. In a move which I suspect might well irritate members of the 'BDSM community', there is a point close to the end where the female partner appears to have a moment of doubt about what the couple do sexually, and cries to her husband that she thinks she ‘must be some kind of monster’ following a sequence in which she cuts him with a scalpel.

Ultimately, Special is a near-forensic examination of a couple’s relationship, which uses the sexual to explore the whole. It is a celebration of the virtues of communication and trust within marriage. The piece also presents a robust challenge to those who find BDSM and its associated alleys anything from perplexing to downright offensive. The extremity of some of the practices depicted is at times disturbing - not because of the on-stage representation, but simply because of the actual pain being inflicted. More often, however, one is touched by the honesty of the couple and by their evident love for one another.


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