As the lights go down at the end of See Me Now’s press night the audience rise collectively to their feet in outright admiration. This display of elation is not born out of left liberal values, but out of respect for the performers, for the gutsy real life stories they as an audience have just been witness to and the realisation of the emotional cost that telling such stories has for the ensemble.
The show is about the sex industry and is a Young Vic Taking Part production two years in the making with director Mimi Poskitt at the helm and in collaboration with High Tide and Look Left Look Right and is performed and developed by those that know it best- sex workers. Molly Taylor’s text is inspirationally episodic in nature and gives us elliptical and yet intimate real life portraits of the performers onstage and of those who have dropped out of the project, but still want their voices heard. We hear from men and women, transgender and intersex people all playing themselves. Yes, we all know that such shows that work with non professionals could risk being branded as “therapeutic” ( as if such a show should be contained somehow for its creativity and limited by its label? though I wonder what is wrong with therapeutic anyway? Therapy is a two way street after all) and also, in this case because of its multiple storytelling nature “lacking in character development” but to see the work merely through such prisms would be to do it an injustice and to misinterpret its genre. Why? First, because any show- and the same can be said of a show with professional actors- must be approached by the audience with the same spirit within which it has been created- and the spirit here is one of openness and informality. And second, its chosen genre must be embraced, even if, as happens here, it is a departure from it.
Audiences might come to the show because they are intrigued and curious about an industry that for so long this country has ideologically been in denial about and has pushed to the edge of society in order to make it invisible, impeding our growth towards a more just community and encouraging human rights abuses. Many might not normally have cause (or think so anyway) to venture into it, although if sex workers could be recognised as therapists (why not?) then we might all be the better for it. In terms of mystique, technical knowledge and humour it does not disappointment. Want to know how to fit a Holy Chastity Trainer device? Governess Elizabeth, who holds a PhD on the practice of chastity in male submissives, will give a full explanation. Curious about the psychological reasons behind why women and some men, hire escorts? Male gigolo Flynt will reveal all. There are also plenty of emotionally raw moments- particularly pertinent is B’s story about being transgender- tonight the stakes are raised when she reveals her dad is in the audience. We share all the performers’ emotions as they talk to us and the imaginative leap that we are required to take as they do so bounds us to them all the more. We hear a lot about the penis- a lot- and a bit less about the vagina and vulva and I kept wondering, what about the vagina? Are we still, collectively, squeamish about talking about vaginas?
There are also some political messages too and aside from the most obvious, one that puts our institutions to shame. It’s an illustration of just how willingly people will indulge themselves in behaviours that they also claim to be illegal or at best, immoral, if they are the law and have power. Notions of romantic victimisation and inclusive exclusion also become moral equivalents. We see and hear about how abuses of power occur by those meant to protect us.
Structurally the show may feel a little uneven, there is less about sex trafficking than there might be, but that’s a small price to pay for the overall honest and emotionally raw experience. The message that sex workers are people with their own problems too and are educated, wise and fearless may feel trite to some, but this country unfairly stigmatises them, sometimes seeing them as less than human and so leaving them unprotected (sex workers in Amsterdam have their own union for instance, no such luck here, though there are collectives). This must change and seeing this show and acknowledging the people in it could be the beginning of persuading hearts and minds. It’s hot, raw, outrageous fun and full of love and perhaps is paving the way for future shows like this to enter a broader, theatrical arena, as they should.
The show is on at the Young Vic until 4th March but is sold out. It is worth trying for returns though.