Thursday, September 13, 2007

Live Sex Show!

i'm very much looking forward to Told By An Idiot's production of Carol Ann Duffy's Casanova, currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith. Here's an interview with the company by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian.

Cassanova is to be played by the fabulous Hayley Carmichael, who, as the more observant of you will have noticed, is a woman. Look:

Now, this isn't just my favourite publicity shot of the year - there's a few key things that the company say that deserve drawing out, because they have implications for how we might make and watch theatre, for the portrayal of sexuality on stage, and for people who care about gender, power and representation within the theatre (the rest of you, stop reading now. I mean it. Now!)

Gardner reports that early versions of the play about the great lover, contained, unsurprisingly, a hell of a lot of sex. As the show developed the sex disapeared. This from the article:

"We actually copied some of the sex scenes from the Fellini movie," explains Carmichael. "But, bit by bit, the sex disappeared, because it looked ludicrous and because, even with me on top thrusting away with a man beneath me, I still somehow felt and looked like a victim."

Now, obviously there's nothing wrong with making a show that doesn't have lots of sex in it - plenty of people do that all the time - and it's certainly true that very often sex on stage looks ludicrous. I'm not in any way taking issue with the decisions that the company have made. What concerns me is that, even in a production which has obviously feminist undertones, overtones, and presumably every other kind of tone on display, a woman engaging in simulated sex onstage should make the performer feel and look like a victim, even when all the obvious signifiers seem to be pointing towards her being strong and in control. Again, from the article:

[Paul Hunter, the show's director] believes that there are very few situations in either the real or literary world "where women have the licence to behave like a Casanova without having to also deal with the judgment and censure that goes with that territory".

I find it odd that the two statements can sit so closely together with no connection made by either interviewer or -ees. I'm also puzzled by Gardner's assertion that the staging is such that "the matter of gender becomes completely irrelevant". It is hard to believe that if a man were on top thrusting away with a woman beneath him, he would feel and look like a victim. It is almost as though in the theatre here described there is a live version of the film camera's male gaze at work - perhaps an invisible lens in the space between audience and performer, and even between the performer and herself.

All of this makes it seem like the stage is an aggressively male gendered space, and maybe it is. Of course, in the real world we can't fix the effects of several thousand years of patriarchy in an instant, but the theatre isn't the real world - in's much better than that, and in the theatre space we can do whatever we damn well please. But in the theatre nothing is easy. Is it a theatrical problem or a broader cultural one which also manifests itself in the theatre? Are the structures of power inscibed into the theatres themselves or is it that they are etched into the psyches of audience and actor alike? What would a women's theatre look like?

i don't really have answers to these questions - so i was wondering if you guys have anything to throw into the ring...


claire said...

i'm v. v. v. jetlagged so forgive briefness/possible incoherence.

I've simulated sex on stage last year with the man on top and beneath me and i can't say that it made me feel like a victim in the slightest. Acts of betrayal by said man (character) later in the play made me feel like a victim, but certainly not the sex, instigated i might add, by my character. So i'm afraid i can't quite follow the logic.

There's always talk of "when-men-womenize-it's-ok-but-when-women-do-they're-slags". I think that's bollocks, women who honestly think that, and who think having sex on stage victimizes them (is there some kind of femme-objet problem there?) imo have, well, issues. what i mean is i don't think it is or should be systematic.

I wrote a whole essay on luce irigaray and theatre, it must be banging around somewhere in some readable state if you want which tried to tackle some of those questions you're asking (particularly, what would women theatre be like?).

again, mea culpa, i know this is a half arsed answer, but have just returned from guadeloupe so i have a wonderful excuse.

Andrew Haydon said...

It is an interesting question you raise. Not least the part about whether stages are gendered. Without wanting to sound reductive (it isn't meant like that) - on one hand a lot of modern stages (Olivier and Barbican in particular) are some of the most womb-like places I ever spend time in. They're dark, warm and cavernous. Even the stages themselves are vast black holes stretching back to an unseen point (do your own Freudian analysis). Compare this to Shakespeare's *thrust* stages, or indeed the prominent pillars of the Globe, and we have an interesting dichotomy - well, potentially we do.

I think the idea of "looking like a victim" might have stemmed very much from Carmichael's own particular stage presence. She is very small, and her clowishness often tends toward the tragic. I can imagine how that might work in sex-stage scenes to make her look like the victim, while other actresses undertaking the exact same role would come across entirely differently. As such, I'm not sure that *women* per se wind up as default victims in theatre.

As a thought experiment, substitute Rebecca H for Cressida in any part you care to think of. Bingo.

Lily E said...

Hm. This is indeed interesting. I do think the fact that Carmichael sees herself, or rather, feels herself, to be a 'victim' when simulating sex on stage is a problem, no less within her sense of herself as an actress and what that means - and I guess a lot of that feeling comes from what she feels to be the male gaze upon her. That a woman should feel this way on stage must be a symptom of the way she feels watched at all times as an actress - I am not one, not shall I ever be - but I imagine that the idea of being judged by appearances, as a woman, plays a strong part in the whole issue of gendered stages, and it is the fact that the portrayal of sex leaves someone visually and emotionally vulnerable in a starker way, that highlights the issue of how a woman feels watched onstage.

What I also think is interesting - relating this back to film - is that I agree, sex scenes are largly filmed through the eyes of a man, and it's rare, in fact I cannnot think of one, when a woman is seen to be having a Lovely Time without the camera lingering on her naked body. 'Secretary'. I think is a interesting example, in that when the actress is 'playing' the victim (in an S & M context) she does not appear to be one, as she has chosen her role - I know others may disagree with this - but when she is then part of what is more 'normal' sexual behaviour and she is washed, lovingly and gently by a man, the camera revels in close-ups of her body in a way that makes her a lot more vulnerable than in any other part of the film.

I think that what I am trying to say in a rather protracted and rambling way is that being a 'victim' is about the wey the scene is played and the way the actress feels. (And this is not to say that this feeling is not important, it is fundamental to the way women portray themselves on stage and are made to feel by their audience) I have seen some incredible, sexual, sensual, vulnerable scenes played by women and have at no point felt them to be victimised. I think the word 'victim' carries with it such strong sentiments that it is paradoxically a way of empowering the user of the word. She seems to be 'owning' that status almost as an act of defiance. Perhaps.

These are mere thoughts, anyway, I have tangled myself up in knots. And I cannot spell. Apologies.

Lily E said...

Oh, and I know you have said you are not meaning to sound reductive Andrew, but I cannot help but think that any space can be labelled masculine or feminine by virtue of its shape or even warmth, but I have never felt that I am in a 'womb like' space or indeed standing in front of something more phallic with a thrust stage, that seems to me rather a facile way of looking at the issue of gendered stages... (And I really do not mean that to sound as rude or dismissive as it does - sorry - it is just that it is a concept I have never quite 'got' and it is this I think is facile, not you)

punshon said...

I've drunk two bottles of beer so that's my excuse for any incoherence...

I thought there was something quite victim-like about Hayley's performance, even though the only real sex scene was a rather lovely clownish fun one - but I think Andrew's right that it's partly(mainly?) because her clown persona is quite tragic. Plus she's TINY - the sex scene was almost paedophilic she was so TINY compared to the big bloke she was shagging.

and also it's by Carol Ann Duffy and one can't deny she's got something going on about male oppression...

but anyway. I agree with Lily that gendering spaces always feels a bit silly to me. once you've spent three years listening to archaeologists going on about the symbolism of stone circles and standing stones and all that stuff you get a bit tired of it.

I do think sex scenes are almost always male-biased. I think everyone should go and watch Red Road though, as an example of an extraordinary sex scene which does spend a bit of time on the woman's naked body, but which is also the only movie sex scene I've ever seen which was truly absolutely essential to the film, and also so devastatingly intimate that I had to close my eyes at one point. And written/directed by a woman, interestingly.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Short answer: no, it's just our cultural baggage.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Oh, all right, longer answer (though no more precise):

I think Haydon and Punshon are likely to be on the money as regards the specificities of the Duffy/Carmichael Casanova. I've been seeing Hayley on stage since, I think, the original production of David Glass's Gormenghast that's just had a 15th-anniversary revival, and the only occasion on which she hasn't seemed to me to command at least an element of childlike connotation was in A Little Fantasy, by virtue of her being given a Mini-Me in the form of restricted-growth actress Lisa Hammond.

But it's not necessarily about power tout court. There's a way in which we require victims, not so that we can dominate them, but so that we can establish our own superiority by pitying them condescending to them or claiming to act on their behalf or in their interest. And I think that's a pitfall that especially inhabits radic-lib areas, and that talk of a structural "male theatrical gaze" might precisely reinforce a power hegemony even as it superficially questions it.

The gaze of theatre is the gaze of culture, which is the gaze of society or at any rate the privileged segment(s) of it; the first will become less intractably male when the last does likewise. That's not an imbalance inherent to theatre; it's one inherent, alas, to the world.

See, told you the short answer was better.

alexf said...

thanks for the responses guys - i've been locked in my house by my lovely housemates, so i guess i've got time to write proper reresponses. Unfortunately, the old-no-sleep-eyed monster has also been rearing its head, so you may find that i don't quite have the head for it.

claire - i'd love to read the essay if you find it.

everyone - i don't think it's useful to discus whether or not HC is right to feel the way she says she feels in the interview (although i'm slightly surprised that some people seem to find it hard to see how someone might feel that way - as lily says "the portrayal of sex leaves someone visually and emotionally vulnerable" in that special actory way that actors are visually and emotionally vulnerable). i think the question really is whether i was right to generalise outwards.

andrew, lily, punshon - like lily and punshon i really don't go in for the "x looks like a cock" school of freudian analysis (teehee - it says "anal" in "analysis"), but even if i did, i think you'd be hard pushed to make a claim for the globe's phallicness (phallicosity?) what with big S's reference to the ol' "wooden O" and all. The power structure reified in that building seems to me to be pretty clearly one of class, albeit a class structure which is now largely defunct. (Which is neatly highlighted by considering what it means to deliver Hamlet's "O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise" in that space. Of course the multitude of ways you could deliver this also suggest a multitude of aproaches to tackling (or not tackling) that power structure.)

Anyway, there's a reason beyond rambling to this diversion - if power structures can be built into spaces in such a way that, left unchallened, the space reinforces the power structure and affects the way people perceive and behave within that space (hint - they can) then surely it's not beyond the realms of possibility that some of these power structures be to do with gender and sex. i mean, has no one ever spent time in a sales office? Those places are a sausage fest, and they are laid out to encourage that.

shutters - i agree that conferring victim status onto someone can be a way of marginalising and claiming them. But that doesn't mean that there aren't people who are actually victims of actual things. while you could very well say that a male theatrical gaze may is a silly theory, i don't see that it's any more a secretly reactionary one than the application of gaze theory in cinema - where it seems to me to be a pretty useful analytical tool.

i'm afraid i don't really buy the idea that the gaze in the theatre is simply the gaze of whoever's looking (i know i'm being reductive, apols) - theatre has spectators and the act of looking is always going to be lurking at or around the foreground - whilst it's not possible to control how someone might look (because they can always refuse) it is certainly possible to suggest, prompt, provoke, demand, or ask that they look in certain ways. Of course this takes thought and skill, but there are certainly people making work who think about these things and some of them are feminists.

right, that's me fried. hope some of this makes sense!

Andrew Haydon said...

"while you could very well say that a male theatrical gaze may is a silly theory, i don't see that it's any more a secretly reactionary one than the application of gaze theory in cinema - where it seems to me to be a pretty useful analytical tool."

But isn't part of gaze analysis in cinema derived from the fact that the camera effectively forces it (one's gaze/view/whichever) in a way that the open stage can only invite, but not enforce?

alexf said...

or you could see it as the control and construction of the viewer's gaze being tighter and more obvious.

wilko said...

A proscenium arch theatre controls the viewers gaze to a much greater egree than say the place in which a Punchdrunk show takes place. In this respect, I dont think a prosc arch is that different from a big cineman screen that has a shot with lots of stuff hapeningin it at the same time.

Lighting designers also do a great deal to control where the audience looks. That is part of their job. It is what a spotlight does.

A spot light is both a circle of light (usually) and a shaft of light. This making it both a vagina and a cock at the same time. Light is hemaphrodite.

Lucy said...

been meaning to write on this for days...

just two quick things and i'll come back.

andrew. 'the theatre space as womb-like?' what has *that* got to do with a womans sexual empowerment and/or pleasure? i don't know about any of the other sexually active women who read that, but frankly i would find thinking about the happenings-in/of-the-womb mid-bonk would quite put me off my stroke.

another thing.
just did a small show in yorkshire, a two hander (both female), a performance piece, in an art gallery. the piece was made up of three sections, the first was a presentation of 2 women, (very much presented as objects within a 'still life'), then a playful, gently homo-erotic scene as young boys, and then the last one being us, as performers 'reduced' to pigs or stoopid fuckin animals. there was about 5-10seconds of similuated sex played out (actually just thrusting, and played as the 'male', against the gallery floor- the scene was not between the two females) before death.

did i feel like a victim? or was i made to feel like one by the space or the audience or the makers of the work (which incidentally was me)? not in this instance no, far from it. but my feedback from the artistic director who commissioned the work ran: "loved the show, made me think alot about gender and power, has raised alot of questions for me...and you've got a great arse"

i'll leave that with you.

Andrew Haydon said...

From the best of my recollection, what wombs and power have to do with each other is, if you'll forgive the appalling opportunism-of-phrase, pretty much the first instance of the workers controlling the means of production. Or at least, the best example of the absolute need for them to do so. That said, I should make it clear that my Freudian reading of the cavernous Olivier interior was at least mainly in the spirit of antic desconstructivist larks.

alexf said...

dude, i think you're mixing up pregancy with work, children with the products of labour(not that kind), and fucking with economic activity.

you can get arrested for that.

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