No nudity? Now that’s a scandal
The Sunday Times – UK
… “It’s become a deep cliché,” says Mark Borkowski, the publicist famous for his promotion of extreme acts such as Archaos and the Jim Rose Circus. …
No nudity? Now that’s a scandal
Being offensive has always been a way to get a little attention in Edinburgh, but is it still possible to shock audiences used to reality TV, asks Nick Thorpe
In the event that the Unnecessarily Offensive Theatre company wins some kind of award at this year’s Edinburgh festival, it is unlikely to be for subtlety.
Acts of Depravity, strategically listed on the first page of the fringe comedy programme, is described as follows: “A sex in the city brief encounter between Tennessee Williams, Alan Bennett, Chekhov and an existential vibrator (I vibrate therefore I am) all combine to bring bad taste comedy to an absolutely fabulous new low. Hilariously offensive.”
It’s an enthusiastic if perplexing stab at box-office-boosting obscenity, but it’s likely to encounter some stiff competition in a festival that doesn’t so much court controversy as speed-date it.
Do these fringe first-timers (in this case a splinter group from an amateur Shakespeare society in Leicester) know they’re up against Slaughterhouse Live — whose full-colour ad depicts a bloodied man on a toilet holding a severed pig’s head between his legs? Can they ever hope to challenge hardcore stand-ups Jerry Sadowitz, Mike Wilmot or Doug Stanhope, spitting bile for the title of most offensive comedian on the planet? Could they further crank the publicity machine by posing naked? Or — whisper it — are shock tactics yesterday’s marketing gimmick? With transvestite festival veterans Lady Boys of Bangkok and the genital origami of Puppetry of the Penis already a part of the comedy establishment, could it be that on the 60th anniversary of the fringe, audiences are unshockable? Is anybody really offended by anything any more? “It’s become a deep cliché,” says Mark Borkowski, the publicist famous for his promotion of extreme acts such as Archaos and the Jim Rose Circus. “The festival is littered with people desperate to get some sort of attention, and the lazy route to that is shock value. But the envelope has been pushed back so many times that Edinburgh audiences just say, ‘Oh God, here we go again’.”
Outrage on the fringe is nothing new. Back in the 1960s it was a topless woman in a wheelchair and shows such as Futz, a production about bestiality, that grabbed headlines. In the 1980s a play entitled (misleadingly, as it turned out) Live Sex on Stage pulled in the punters, while a church venue hurriedly closed down a production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover it was hosting. But in those days outraged city councillors such as Moira Knox could be relied upon to condemn the latest freak show/sacrilegious artwork/naked trapeze act — and thereby guarantee a box-office sell-out.
Nowadays they’ve fallen quiet. “New Labour changed everything — everyone became more PR savvy,” laments Borkowski, who engineered a few of his own ticket-boosting run-ins with Knox. “You haven’t got the Tory grandees to wind up any more. Nowadays who really gets annoyed by sexually explicit scenes on stage, when we’ve got people copulating live on reality TV?” Only the more conservative religious groups can still be relied upon to be offended — one reason, perhaps, for the rise in shows such as Jesus: The Guantanamo Years or We Don’t Know Shi’ite.
Elsewhere the self-proclaimed nasties of stand-up have to dig ever deeper to provoke a walk-out.
Glaswegian Jerry Sadowitz — who was knocked unconscious after opening a Canadian set with the words: “Hello moosef***ers” — is challenged this year by the American Doug Stanhope, who made front-page news at the recent Kilkenny comedy festival under the quote: “Irish women are too ugly to rape.”
“No press is bad press,” quips an unrepentant Stanhope in his blog. “Unless you’re the guy with the sportcoat over your head being lead from the courthouse.” Whether you think this is funny, appalling or just adolescent, it’s almost impossible to find a comedy critic who isn’t praising Stanhope’s “aggressive intelligence” (The Guardian) or hailing him as the next Bill Hicks. Certainly, nobody on the festival circuit will easily admit to being offended — which must be hard for performers who claim to thrive on disapproval. Are there really any sacred cows left to massacre? The Fringe director, Paul Gudgin, thinks not. He receives remarkably few public complaints — mainly because content on the 1,800 shows he oversees is clearly advertised in advance.
That doesn’t stop everybody, however. “There was one show called Japanese Shock Show or something like that, and someone complained that he had taken his 12-year-old daughter to it and she’d been shocked,” recalls Gudgin. “I had to stop myself from saying: “Well, the clue was in the title . . . ”
In other cases warnings on content boosted ticket sales in unexpected ways. “Not so long ago we noticed on our computer that one customer had done a search for every show with the word nude or erotic in it,” says Gudgin. “As far as we could tell he had been to see all of them. It seemed an odd selection, obviously someone from the dirty mac brigade — but I bet he wasn’t shocked . . . ”
Edinburgh’s higher-brow audiences appear no less susceptible to the heady whiff of controversy. Website and brochure warnings designed to protect under-16s from the “explicit content” of this summer’s Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition are only likely to increase adult visitor numbers at the National Galleries of Scotland — where the photographer’s famous self-portrait involving a bullwhip was among the nudes that went on public show yesterday.
Meanwhile Edinburgh International Festival could trump even Mapplethorpe with its stage adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s Platform — “one of the most successful and controversial novels of the past decade” — directed by the controversial Calixto Bieito.
Having somehow included oral sex in his 2003 Hamlet and hired real prostitutes for his take on Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Spanish director is likely to need less poetic licence for Houellebecq’s characters, who trawl the S&M clubs of Paris before setting up a business in Third World sex tourism.
“We don’t set out to cause offence,” says Jackie Westbrook, marketing and communication manager for the Edinburgh International Festival. “On the other hand we want to present work that has contemporary resonance and power, and that may well create controversy.”
Last year’s The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams’s opera about terrorism aboard a cruise liner, was a case in point. Westbrook experienced her own unexpected “emotional impact” from watching hostages living in fear. “Are modern audiences harder to shock?” she asks. “No — the power of live theatre is intrinsic, and each generation discovers it afresh.”
As Anthony Neilson, that show’s director, pointed out, being disturbed by a work of art is not necessarily a negative thing: “If something shocks me, I don’t just walk away from it,” he said. “I ask myself why I am shocked by it.”
Gudgin believes controversy will reign as long as shock comedians continue to fill theatres — but advises newcomers to make sure their material is up to the hype.
“If someone has got something important to say, then shock remains a valuable device,” he says. “Shock value can sell a show for a few days, but if it isn’t any good it’ll die out pretty quickly — however controversial it is