I went to a show that was billed as containing full nudity and sexual content, it was at The Asylum in Peckham. An old stone chapel of a mental hospital creates excellent atmosphere with evening sun pouring through high windows. Audience could sit on scattered seats, benches or rugs and were told the action would move, so they could too. Beer and mojitos flowed from a mobile bar.
Once settled the party began. A crew of white clad folk (three men and four women) strode in distributing props, assembling apparatus. Some of the clan wore a grey uniform instead. It was not long before one by one they started to undress, apart from one of their number. Clothes were neatly folded and hidden or bestowed upon audience members to look after. A camera was passed around the audience and we were told it was the only means by which we could photograph the event.
Film and narrative, prepared by Oreet Ashery, were apparently loosely based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 play Mystery-Bouffe, and explore performances of liberation and political nakedness. It responds to the changing landscape of Dutch politics following the assassinations of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2001 and film director Theo van Gogh in 2004, and the ensuing popularity of Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician and leader of the far-right Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom).
Pieces of film rolled on a screen. Naturists frolicking outdoors on a trampoline and other oddities accompanied by audio description of government position on nudity in different countries, how it is treated in the law etc from what sounded like archive recordings, BBC kind of voice. It was not always easy to hear the narrative and the images were quite a roughly edited assemblage of old clips and actions filmed specifically for the show. They added to the atmosphere though and gave an effective backdrop to the semi-improvised feel of the performances.
The performers (most of whom were graduates of performance theatre courses and had been assembled for this show) randomly paired or grouped to move and make noises together. Each body was of course different, though all fit, young, toned; what you might expect of dancers. I imagined them all living together in a commune, but it was just the effect of rehearsing intensely, intimately. It was surreal, the nudity and not knowing what would come next intoxicating. I waited for the sexual, was turned on by women doing press ups nude, and the closest they got was a couple writhing albeit in a contact movement kind of way. Nevertheless I found the whole show a turn on as it pushed a boundary of what we are used to, and in a most sincere and simultaneously bonkers way! The performers moved gracefully, with a confident physicality, each quite unique apart from the others, and all as a group. They occupied a dinghy in the middle of the space, tumbling over each other in a mixture of control and abandon. We didn’t know what to expect when they heralded us onlookers to undress too, but a few of us went with it. A commentator with a megaphone informed us by the second which items of clothing were being removed around the room. Hilarity! Shoes were thrown to the centre of the space, and the first member of the audience stripped was applauded! We wondered if more interactivity was on the cards, it felt as if anything could happen, and that was the magic!
As for how the show explores currencies of perceived threats to Western freedom… I had to think about this. The nudity with movement and dancing was not Western in style, more Dada than Gaga. But the openness of the performers which would be forbidden in some other cultures, is possible in our society. Are we collectively afraid of getting nekkid? Does the idea actually really excite us? If we lost our right to nudity, how much would we lose? Looking into the political backdrop of the happening, it is about artists and politicians taken against Islam, speaking openly about it, in Theo Van Gogh’s case making a film criticising Islam’s treatment of women. Assassinations ensued. So this fear, of loss of freedom led to a racist mentality.
Further performances are planned over the coming weeks at venues to be decided. After the show the audience mingled with the performers and the director and there was a great sense of mutual experience. It made me want to get out there performing on a stage with movement and in the company of others…