Edinburgh Fringe 2013
SexLife – Another short, this two-hander examines the importance of sex in a loving relationship, and what happens when the tap runs dry, so to speak. Fairly conventional in many ways, this show is, again, transformed into an entirely different experience couched within the PEEP show.
It’s a very specific bit of imagery, an unambiguous invitation, the PEEP logo. The hot-pink neon design, the word itself, the black plastic strips hanging on the outside of the structure of the PEEP venue all invite the spectator into a world of seedy strip-clubs, coin-operated pornographic movies, and the very private, intimate experiences that might take place in such places. None of this is accidental. The shows within the unique structure all deal, in some way or another, with sex, sexuality, and sexual relationships. And while some of the drama may be quite standard, the experience of the viewer is not. Step in line for a PEEP show, and you are led into a private viewing booth where you don a pair of headphones and peer through a one-way mirror into the private lives contained within. You can see the performers but they can’t see you, and you can’t see any of the other audience members, and they can’t see you. It’s all very anonymous. And it transforms the theatre-going experience. In some ways reminiscent of the ‘movie-for-one’ experience offered by Bootworks’ Black Box theatre, PEEP is a voyeuristic concept, which prompts a number of difficult and convoluted questions.
Cut off from the performers, you experience the show(s) in your own private space. You could be doing anything in there (it’s a reviewer’s dream because no one can see your notepad). You are watching; looking. There is no feedback loop between performer and spectator, no sense of validation or of permission. Take off the headphones and you hear nothing but a faint murmur from the performers on the other side of the glass. Shift on your stool and no one will notice. We are given carte blanche to stare, to be eager or bored or to yawn and close our eyes. The performance happens within it’s own conceptual space and we bring much of the given circumstance with us into our own little, separate cubicles.
The shows themselves are touching, funny, private, delicate things. Both (penned by acclaimed Kefi Chadwick) deal with the importance of sex and the consequences when it’s not a part of our lives (as much as it should be). Both deal with problems in their characters’ lives. In La Petit Mort, husband and wife (Saskia Portway and Liam Smith) reel in the aftermath of a life-changing event that takes sex off the table. Featuring excellent performances by the pair (with some fantastic acting by interloper Richard Pepper), La Petit Mort is a good pairing with SexLife. In SexLife, Pepper teams up with Belle Heesom to portray another couple who are experiencing bedroom issues. Pepper’s performance is, again, fantastic, and Heesom similarly acquits herself in her role as (somewhat) shrewish recipient of his laughably inept amorous attempts. The plays are good, solid bits of theatre: short, sweet, compact things that offer a brief glimpse of realistic worlds and people we might recognise from our own lives. Nevertheless, it is the experience of watching, rather than the work itself that is arresting.
We can feel the hand of the director taking full advantage of the mechanics of the space, blocking action directly in front of a viewing booth to offer the viewer a tantalising glimpse at something intimate. Or moving the players into an awkward angle to obscure them from view, forcing us to watch the action reflected back to us through the warped strip of mirrored plastic that runs around the room. We can stare at the bits we want to look at, or sit back on our stools and analyse the scene coolly. We can be aroused or disinterested, and the actors themselves must experience something of this disconnectedness themselves. They are, for all intents and purposes, living private lives. When they stand in the centre of the room undressing or arguing, they must always be aware of the seventeen or so rectangles spaced around the perimeter of the room, of the eyes that may or may not be watching them. It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. Or porn, maybe… Schrodinger’s Porn. We are both there and not there at the same time, potentially staring through our little PEEP holes as they wriggle their way through their roles.
PEEP prompts a number of questions, but the biggest, for me, may be: Why these the cloistered gardens of Assembly George Square? These are interesting pieces and a concept that’s novel and re-appropriates the structures traditionally associated with an exploitative and dehumanising sex trade, and they feel somehow wrong framed in such a corporate setting. Despite all of that, the talent of the actors and the makers shines through, offering a one-of-a-kind experience in a fringe where there is increasingly so much homogeneity. The space offers several shows throughout the day; all playing on their banner in their unique space, and it’s definitely worth having a PEEP.