Naomi Westerman On Sex in Theatre
It’s a warm evening in September and I am watching one of my closest friends give his wife (also a good friend) a good seeing-to over a chair. It is their first wedding anniversary. The enthusiastic audience hoots and cheers. I smile and go back to reading the ‘dogging’ section of a popular UK swingers forum.
If you are a playwright, actor, or theatre-maker, none of this will raise an eyebrow. Probably.
I have been playwriting for three years, and most of my work has been in fairly serious drama or drama with elements of comedy, generally female-centric work relating to mental health, disability, women, contemporary urban life with the odd dystopia thrown in. I was walking home one night and noticed someone had graffitied the word ‘dogging’ on the wall of the tennis centre near my house, with a helpful arrow pointing towards the car park. I went home and wrote a ten-minute play that evening, which could not be anything but a comedy. A year later and that short play now forms the opening scene of my full-length feminist lesbian pro-sex political protest porn play ‘Puppy’, which is one of two of my plays debuting as part of VAULT Festival next month.
Writing about sex is never easy, staging sex harder still (no pun intended), and I’m not sure if trying to make all this sex comedic makes it better or worse. Sex is inherently funny (and I believe also inherently political), and dogging occupies that weird area between cheeky Carry On British humour, and something sometimes perceived as more seedy and sordid (which I was keen to avoid).
Finding the right balance between comedy and a more serious approach when dealing with issues of sexual orientation, identity, porn, exploitation, censorship, politics and protest was sometimes difficult, but one challenge was figuring out how to script and stage the sex scenes themselves, in a way that was funny but not cheesy or exploitative. Theatre does not have a great reputation for staging sex scenes well, although I have been inspired by previous productions that used imaginative and inventive metaphors (the Lyric Hammersmith’s Tipping the Velvet’s exploding canons and circus silks) and staging (the RSC’s It’s a Mad World My Masters’ silhouettes and curtains). In David Hare’s The Blue Room, Nicole Kidman was famously described as “pure theatrical Viagra”; I certainly have no desire nor interest for one of my productions or cast to ever be described likewise. I’d rather get a good solid laugh.
In my other VAULT Festival play, Claustrophilia, sex is the unmentionable elephant in the room. The one-woman drama centres around a young woman who is “totally fine” but who spend her adolescence kidnapped and held as a prisoner in a single room. She claims he never touched her, and chastises the audience for their salacious interest in those particular details. Sex, whether absent or present, always has power.
Puppy is on at Morley College, 23rd February, 2nd March. http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/puppy/2017-02-23
Claustrophilia is on at Vault Pit, 17th to 18th February.