Vault Festival, London, 19th February
She's Diverse Theatre Company
Coco is a young East Londoner; black; aspiring actor. She’s struck by constant discrimination in the industry and, despite her drive, talent and passion, is failing to garner any form of success. It doesn’t deter her though, and she’ll risk anything to get her voice heard.
Gloria is older; Russian. She’s been in the UK for years and calls it home. She’s tall with a striking face. Her advice is frequently sought after and she shares it willingly. Nevertheless, her own experience signals regret. She suffered domestic violence from a once caring husband and she left him, in search of safety, for her and her daughter.
Nicole carries a sense of unresolved but confident nervousness. She’s transgender, and she loves her body. She’s found her identity after so many years of being forced to think of herself as someone different from who she actually is.
What, you ask, do these three women have in common, despite their gender?
They all earn money by taking their clothes off for, normally, men.
Strippers? Beguilers? Dancers?
And She’s Diverse’s so-titled production showcased at London’s Vault Festival was a raw and truthful exploration of not just the average night’s work for these three women, but of their pasts and their futures. The location fittingly reflected the underground, concealed nature of London’s currently dying strip scene; out of the looming eye of the nearby National Theatre, cut into the walls of the Leake Street underpass, resided the venue. Passing through a hazy, muffled bar area with dimmed pink lighting into a separate space the craftswoman’s noble tool, the pole, stood boldly in the upstage. The audience benches framed the stage suggesting that we were, in fact, watching a strip show.
The premise, therefore, was admirable; a female focused theatre company utilising diverse and true stories to create a thought-provoking, enlightening performance about the real struggle of selling your sexualised appearance for money, whilst also perhaps exerting a stance as a third-wave feminist.
However, it seems that such desirable ends were not entirely achieved. Fundamentally, each one of the women bore a painful story of struggle, but this wasn’t tapped into. Structuring the frame as simply another shift at work confined the possibilities somewhat, as we seldom explored beyond the four walls of the club. What’s more, the momentary flashbacks that did occur were executed with the slightly primary technique of freeze frames, out of which one character would break and monologue for several minutes before re-joining the scene. What was meant to be pro-woman seemed to merge unnaturally into being anti-man, with our three ‘angels’ ending the performance by turning and facing the two male actors, now gazing upon them along with the audience. This provoked a fairly unexpected turning of the tables. The men had become the objects of speculation, rather than the strippers. This objectified them in a way that had been persistently dismissed by the women’s love for the liberating feeling of stripping. It did not appear to concur with the previously established messages in the performance.
Furthermore, the unexpected protagonist came in the form of a multi-roling male actor, which unfortunately seemed to undermine the very mantra of not only the performance but also the theatre company. He utilised a quaint repertoire of accents to, along with the other less prominent male actor, offer us ‘the male’, in all its forms. We moved from the infatuated-cum-delusional fan of Nicole to Gloria’s abusive husband, to an LA movie producer who, it’s suggested, date raped Coco, not to mention the several stag party members. It was a distraction, and he came to define the women by the relationships they had to him rather than as distinct characters in their own right.
Directorial questions posited on the Angels page of the Vault website asked. ‘Is stripping still worth it?’ and ‘…what will happen to the thousands of women using their special skills and talents to earn a decent living?’ A thoroughly conceived production would, presumably, demand that these questions be answered, but neither obviously were so. However, perhaps this uncertainty was precisely what the performance strove for. We are not to know the end point of the stripping profession, because it is still unknown. This performance, therefore, raised vital questions about the wider world of stripping and demanded that its audience understand just how unknown the future is. Uncertainty, if taken as a central theme, allowed Angels to explore these true stories of strippers without it being necessary to provide conclusion, but in doing so it lacked profundity. Uncertainty needs to be convincing enough that it doesn’t make one question the validity of the creative process.
Essentially what felt missing was a clear set of directorial aims; was this a comment on the dying London strip scene? Was it a feminist call to fight the patriarchy? Was it simply trying to shed light and empathy on the lives of real women? It was simultaneously doing everything and nothing.
In this case, as defined by author: sharing of diverse personal narratives amongst women leading to the understanding that, yes, all women are individuals, yet they can still unite in the collective experience of oppression and discrimination.
More information/ Photo source: https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/angels/