The Fingersmiths latest production incorporates spoken and projected text with theatricalised British Sign Language. Penny Pepper caught their performance at the Drill Hall, London.
The Fingersmiths are old collaborators in a new formation: acclaimed performers/devisers Jeni Draper and Jean St Clair and award-winning writer Kaite O'Reilly. The trio first collaborated on Jenny Sealey's production of 'Peeling', written by Kaite, for Graeae Theatre Company.
It's a pleasant summer's evening and I'm wheeling just off Tottenham Court Road, into Chenies Street, to see 'In praise of fallen women' at The Drill Hall. I have two friends with me, J., a wheelchair user, and C., who is partially sighted.
We're shown in quickly. Lighting is low; the performance area is a level space defined by objects and furniture. The colour red dominates. Colour of passion, colour of blood; red carpet, red curtain, a chaise long, red flowers. But also, a pair of virgin white chairs, and there's fruit and shoes on the stark triangular shelving at the rear of the set. Loaded symbolism - a dark yet playful aesthetic provoking curiosity and expectation in the opening moments.
There is stark silence as we settle in our places in the front. The two women in the performance space are dressed in archetypal whores' clothing; black dresses, pointy shoes, clichéd sexy stockings.
As the performance begins, screens at different positions within the space fill with text, and this continues throughout the performance. A duologue ensues between the women and we are taken back through time to explore the contradiction, the challenge, the power that is the prostitute.
As the feverish unfolding of interplay between performers Jeni Draper & Jean St Clair continues in spoken English and BSL, I am hypnotized by a barrage of stunning set pieces. The male masturbation scene - very funny, explicit and perfectly performed; the duo sitting on the white chairs, covered in the purity of white lace, perfect in signing unison; Jean describing the lives of saints who were once whores, including the frankly hysterical description of one walled into her holy cell, with the shit piling high.
We are given snippets of stories from tragic whores, rich whores, ancient whores and modern whores; from Madame de Pompadour, to Klondike Kate, to the sad horror of a 13 year old dying of stab wounds after being sold into the sex trade by her mother. All brought to a contemporary but significantly provoking moment with the projection of a short filmed piece where a rich woman discusses her experience of travelling abroad to ostensibly buy sex from willing, poor men. All these stories have resonance to current views and hypocrisies on prostitution, posited against the climate of growing sex trafficking of women from poorer parts of the world.
But now it is time to confess my own weakness quite openly. I love narrative structure and it is embedded in me and my own work as a writer. Perhaps this makes me a traditionalist, yet I wholeheartedly believe the use of narrative does not exclude experimentation or ideas that challenge. In fact, I believe narrative is a key factor in dismantling any tired aesthetic - and I am not, of course, meaning narrative as purely text based sequences of words. Yet somewhere in this piece I lost track of any narrative and felt moments of deep frustration as my intellect and emotions were wrenched from one whore's life to another, without a clear sense of forward direction.
Elements of story telling were evident throughout, but became teasers, like a strap line narrative in which the deeper complexities of each individual were not fully realized. Neither did I feel that with these beginnings, was it merely a conscious choice to leave us with a satisfying sense of these women having realities beyond this space, which could not, nor should be given full sentimental closure.
As an experiment in bilingual performance using theatricalised and spoken/projected text (from programme), I feel it was largely successful - with some important reservations which are perhaps at the heart of the knotty difficulties to produce a truly inclusive, yet revolutionary performance. On this night, there was no audio description, and as someone with a low level of light-dark visual impairment, much of the text on the (theatrically very effective) screens was lost to me. My visually impaired friend lost much more. I am intensely interested in integrated, theatricalised performance - I am a Graeae graduate after all; yet I felt this performance faced the usual challenges present in maintaining a radical creative and imaginative focus without actually losing sight of the central purpose of the piece.
Overall this was a red-hot brave, brashly beautiful and laudable performance. I just ask that the stories - which are worthy of being told - are elaborated on and not obscured so deeply within the glorious multi-layered theatrical feast we were invited to devour as served by two very talented performers.