Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: 'Sex Workers' Opera' at Ovalhouse, 23 November 2017

Sex Workers' Opera reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A whore must always be a whore,” said Giuseppe Verdi about Violetta, the sex worker heroine of his opera, La traviata. Since then opera (and, to be honest, pretty much all of performing arts) hasn't been particularly kind to sex workers. The best case scenario is that they get whisked away from a 'life of sin' by a knight in shining armour, but in the vast majority of cases they meet a depressing end via disease, drug addiction or under the knives of male serial killers.

This all contributes to the intense stigma against sex work, which despite being the "world's oldest profession" is widely considered a demeaning and disgusting way to make money. Trying to understand the facts of the situation involves squinting through a cloud of moralistic judgment, negative stereotypes and buttoned up prudery. Fortunately, Experimental Experience's Sex Workers' Opera is here to clear the air and educate us on the practicalities, pitfalls and joys of sex work.

The show consists of a series of musical sketches performed by the cast, composed partly of performers and partly of sex workers (we are never told who's who). These sketches are formed from countless true accounts of what this job is like, with contributions from 50 individuals over 17 countries. 

We progress from a lighthearted story of an Argentinian streetwalker giving her client marital advice, an amusing song about the draconian bans on what you can depict in porn, right through to a harrowing depiction of being arrested and brutalised by the police. Running through all this is a narrative throughline of sisters divided by one's choice to engage in sex work, a narrative that provides a mouthpiece for the anti-sex work arguments about safety, coercion and criminality.

The sceptical sister's position is less malicious and more sympathetically ignorant, giving the characters an excuse to defend themselves and explain what sex work entails. Naturally, the show is largely very positive about sex work: each participant explaining that they have made a reasoned choice to do this for a living, that it suits their personality and lifestyle, that they are smart enough to keep themselves safe and, most simply, that they enjoy it. 

The core of the show is the mantra "listen to us". Much is made of the law around sex work: with the show taking a particularly strong stance against the UK adopting the 'Nordic model', in which the clients rather than the sex workers are criminalised. Their arguments against it are so convincing that you can't work out why it's being considered at all - but then you start to wonder exactly how much consultation the government does with sex workers when formulating new laws around the profession (I'm guessing not much). So, "listen to us" works as a minimalist and powerful argument for taking into account those with boots on the ground.

But while Sex Workers' Opera successfully tackles some of the stigma and misconceptions about sex work, it shies away from responding to legitimate criticism. The sceptical sister character is a bit of a strawman and her objections are summarised as boring and repetitive. To be fair they mostly are: the cast easily dismissing stereotypes that most sex workers are forced to do this, that they're addicted to drugs, that they're petty thieves and that they'll be somehow tainted by an invisible stain for the rest of their lives. But it's disheartening that the argument that sex work promotes the objectification of women is also tossed in the pile of things not worth debating.

Surely there's room for a legitimate debate over whether literally commodifying women's bodies contributes to societal misogyny? I'm not coming down on one side of the debate or the other (after all, there's decades of feminist argument on the issue that I haven't read), but it feels like the show dodges a pretty important question. It's not as if there isn't time to spare: while the majority of sketches and songs are great there are a couple of duds (primarily the prerecorded video shorts) that could be trimmed in favour of putting a bit more philosophical meat on the show's bones.

I don't want to sound too down on the show: Sex Workers' Opera is an imaginative, well conceived, well performed (Emy Fem in particular has a magnetic stage presence) and it's downright interesting piece of theatre.  It will continue to have a positive impact on the world as long as it's staged: these are stories that need to be told and points of view that need to be communicated. If you're a legislator then buy a ticket and listen to this show. 

Sex Workers' Opera is at Ovalhouse until 2nd December. Tickets here.

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