Brighton Fringe 2014
Do you want this review to be prurient, or do you want it post-modern?
‘Sister’ is a show featuring two pole-dancing women – two sisters – and they give us the sort of performance you’d normally go to Soho to see …
Let’s start prurient. The acting space at The Marlborough was completely black, with purple light washing down from the rear, illuminating a shiny black pole mounted on a black metal base at centre stage. A line of tiny red lights along the stage front and six or seven small round tables, set out with seats like in a club, with more seating behind.
It looked and felt like a small and rather sleazy nightclub. Loud music thumping away, making it hard to hear; and a tall woman, with long copper-brown hair and dressed in just a lacy black bra and pants, up on stage, entwining herself sinuously around the pole. A second woman moved round the tables getting us seated. Slightly slimmer, but with the same beautiful copper hair and identical black underwear. Almost twins.
They got two audience members up on the stage, sitting on seats with their backs to the audience, and began to dance for them. To them, really, as they were up very close. But also to us at the tables – they were facing us as they gyrated and bucked through their routine, running their hands over their limbs and bellies and tossing back their long hair. After a while they eased off their bras and continued dancing topless.
Another minute of this, then they sent the visitors back to their tables and continued dancing, one on each side of the stage, finally kneeling and slipping off their pants so that they were completely nude. I thought that would be it, but the women continued caressing their breasts and thighs, eventually kneeling head-down to display their entire backsides to us, leaving nothing hidden as they reached between their legs to stroke their genitalia …
No. No. That’s prurient, if it’s what you want – but that’s not what the show’s about.
‘Sister’ is actually a show about choice – the choices that people make in their lives, and also the choices that an audience makes about what it sees. Very post-modern, in that what we choose to see of the situation – and what we choose to ignore so that it disappears – depends very much on us, and how we’ve been conditioned by our families and by society.
The two women eventually moved to the back of the stage, ran their hands through their long copper hair, and took off what turned out to be – wigs! One had jaw-length blonde hair, swept back over the ears, while the second was completely shaven-headed. They donned dark silk dressing gowns – the sex show was over for a while – and talked about themselves while Amy (the blonde) gently removed makeup from her sister Rosana’s face.
For they actually are sisters. Born in London, brought up in Hertfordshire along with a younger brother, and they now live far apart – in Berlin and Glasgow. They told us about their early sexual experiences – quite early ones in Rosana’s case, having oral sex explained to her at eleven by her younger brother. Traumatic? Possibly, but then Freud talked a lot about the sexuality of children …
As they matured, their lives seem to have diverged. Amy was attracted to sex with men – lots of it – and chose to get involved in the sex industry. Rosana grew to prefer women, and became defiantly and aggressively feminist. They made their choices, but their lives mirror each other in odd ways. Amy – "I was a lap-dancer called Rosana", but her sister retorts – "I am Rosana, and sometimes people think I’m a man".
A lot of the show continued to be performed with both women naked – dancing with the pole, occasionally lying supine on the floor, rubbing themselves – but by now it didn’t seem so erotic. They were no longer sex goddesses cavorting for our titillation, they were women, with needs and desires. And pasts – while they danced, a video projector cast images of two young children onto the back of the stage behind them, jerky home movies that we were told later actually were of Amy and Rosana – the whole show is remarkably honest and personal.
Amy became a sex worker. She read from a letter to her mother – "I’m really happy. I love the life I lead. I know some of the decisions I’ve made have upset you or confused you, but I’ve always felt I was making a positive decision for myself. I’m painfully aware that many people are forced into the sex industry, and for them it’s no choice but sexual slavery. But I do like it – I meet interesting men from around the world". And so on. She seems to have made her choice with open eyes.
Amy seems content – she gets a lot of sex and is presumably well-paid. A lot of sex workers contrast their activity with the low-paid drudgery of factory or call-centre work, and who am I to judge? But of course, all of Amy’s activities are geared towards satisfying men. Actually, she never talked about those men as people – their personalities or their conversation – just about their penises …
As Amy finished her letter, Rosana pulled on a pair of black Doc Martens and started stamping on the metal base and smashing her fists against the black dancing pole – how’s that for Freudian symbolism? Rosana likes sex, but she likes it with women and not as part of the porn industry. At one point later, Amy was dancing, wrapped sinuously round the pole, while Rosana put her hands into black boots as well as her feet, and circled the stage naked on all fours, not on her knees but with her back and buttocks arched like some lumbering beast. Is seemed that Amy was celebrating her idealised feminine sexuality, while Rosana reminded us of the animal nature of human sex. Interesting that Amy, the blonde, had shaved her armpits and most of her pubic hair, while the shaven-headed Rosana had left all of hers growing naturally.
In another section the two women sat, telling us about their lives. Both talking at once, their stories started off identical, voices in unison, and then started to diverge. After a while there were two completely different monologues taking place simultaneously. Choice – it was possible to focus on one narrative stream to the exclusion of the other, and then to decide, consciously, to focus on what the second woman was saying. Two voices at equal volume, but we could choose which one to hear as ‘signal’ and which to push to the background as ‘noise’.
Late in the show, Rosana sat on the pole base, lit from above by a spotlight that gave her naked body and shaven head the quality of a harshly beautiful sculpture. She spoke thoughtfully to the audience, looking at us directly as she listed the choices that she had made in her life, pausing between each phrase –
I’m choosing to do this / I’m choosing my words / I’m choosing to share them / I’m choosing to perform – to show you my body / I didn’t choose my body / I didn’t choose my family / I didn’t choose my name / I didn’t choose where I was born / I didn’t choose the house that I grew up in or the town where I grew up / I chose to leave
Lots more, several minutes of choices; a kind of testament, and later
I’m choosing to show you my naked body / I’m not choosing whether it turns you on or disgusts you / I’m choosing not to care
Rosana can also be funny – in fact there was a lot of laughter in the show – and at the end she looked at a woman on the middle table –
I didn’t choose what you were going to wear / I wouldn’t have worn that …
‘Sisters’ is a very powerful, thought-provoking production. I have memories of it which will stay with me for years. But will my memories be the same as another audience member? I saw a naked woman pole dancing, sensuously stroking the shining shaft, while on the wall behind her she and her sister danced and smiled into the lens of a camera – small children many years ago. Which reality were we to choose?
At one point the video showed one of the children dancing, swinging round the pole of a garden parasol, and we got the irresistible impression that she was practising – at age three or so – for her later life. Time flows in one direction only. We can rewind the film but not our lives. We made choices along the way, and we are what we have chosen to become.