This cabaret-style show has energy, passion and emotion in spades. It’s not a slick production; it doesn’t shine with bells and whistles, or a complex, sharply written narrative with intertwining, overarching themes and artistic devices. Some of the voices in Sex Worker’s Opera are strong, others lack diction or volume or musicality. But, this show is raw, real and exposed. This is how we should be tackling subjects that are so commonly thought of as taboo.
Sex Worker’s Opera has been running since 2014, performing off and on around the country to widespread acclaim. It would be very easy to put on the hat of an uptight, stuffy theatre critic for this show, criticising its seemingly slapdash, imperfect approach that lacks the professionalism of high budget, or more conventional, productions. But to do this would be to entirely miss the point.
The company at any one time is made up of at least 50% current or former sex workers. These are individuals who are perceived as being forced into prostitution to feed an addiction, or into exotic dancing out of desperation for money, or selling themselves because their upbringing granted them no other option. But perhaps we should, as a society, consider that these individuals have actively chosen this profession – for job satisfaction, for enjoyment, or for a host of other reasons far less dark and sordid than they are made out to be.
The performers likewise flit between serious, affecting material and farcical spoofs, designed to warm up the crowd and not be taken too seriously. The scenes jump from honest, vulnerable and searing to raucous comedy, mirroring that of a sitcom. The farce is less successful in its execution than the more hard-hitting work, which feels like an expression of the truth that each performer wishes to give. But to have one without the other would paint an incomplete picture of the lives that make up the Sex Worker’s Opera, ultimately detracting from an accurate, realistic portrayal of the industry as a whole.
In a first half that focusses more on fun and frolics, the brutally honest testimonies of Kio, Emy Fem and Charlotte Rose stand out in stark relief. Bringing laughter and pleasure to those with disabilities, to those struggling with their own gender fluidity, or to those constantly labelled as irresponsible parents, is a punch in the gut after the platitudes of the preceding comedy. From this laudable, stand-and-deliver set of monologues, there is a swift return to clever, satirical responses against the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 – legislation that banned such acts as aggressive whipping, female ejaculation and urolagnia. Alex Etchart stands out as the face of the oppressive government system that claims to be the voice of the people.
The second half is the flipside to Sex Worker’s Opera, focussing on the uglier side of the profession – a side that is more dangerously perpetuated by condemnation from society than by the inherent risk in the work itself. Seedy individuals touch up performers in clubs; businesspeople trade escorts as if they were property or commodities over people; even police brutality comes to the fore to ‘clamp down’ on such acts of depravity.
But the problem is not the game, the problem has always been the players. The sex workers are treated as pawns to be moved on a board by those that pay to control them – they are possessions that are passed around, passed over and punished. Not so here. Here, the production gives these individuals back their voice, either recorded onto tape or spoken directly to the audience. It’s an audio onslaught and it’s defiantly deafening.
From this cacophony of noise comes a ritualistic moment of calm, a ceremony that gives reverence and respect to the art. Yes, there is pain, but in bonding over it, the power of this community overcomes and numbs. Work such as this gives support to those that may feel alone in amidst the stories and the noise. This is the true power of the Sex Worker’s Opera.
Director: Clare Quinn (theatre); Alex Etchart (music); Siobhán Knox (movement)
Producer: Euan Borland
Design: Anna Reid; Liam Mercer (lighting); Van De Michelis (sound)
Cast: Charlotte Rose; Chiqui Love; Chloe Marshall; Emy Fem; Imogen Flower; Jordan Busson; Kio; Melina
Musicians: Dan McBride; Marcelo Faccacello; Violeta García
Images courtesy of Julio Etchart
Sex Worker’s Opera plays at Ovalhouse until 2 December 2017 as part of a UK tour. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.