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Brighton Fringe 2016

Low Down

One of the best things about a festival like Brighton Fringe is that we are exposed to new writers, and work we knew nothing about. I’d never heard of the Glasgow-born author Linda McLean, or of her play ‘Sex and God’. So I was stunned by Cuts and Grazes’ powerful production of her kaleidoscopic overview of women’s lives through the course of the last century.

How do you attempt to portray the challenges – and changes – faced by women?  Social and sexual standards have evolved over the decades, and every woman is individual, with a different psychology and personal history.


This is an absolutely minimalist production.  The stage at the Warren Theatre Box is all black, and at the start there was just a stack of five white stools at one side. After a minute or so of fast-paced percussive music, four women marched down the aisle and onto the stage. Initially they stood together in a tight group across from the stools and began to speak. Not whole lines, and not with any obvious link between one woman’s words and the next. Some lines were shared, spoken simultaneously by several women. Suddenly two of the women reacted sharply – slapped by an invisible hand.

What on earth was going on? Just before the blow, one of the slapped women – she’s tall, dressed in black with a maid’s white apron, let’s call her Jane – had given us the line – “Brought up? I say. What do you know about how she’s been brought up?.”

Then after, a third woman – dressed in jeans and a blue tied-shirt top, let’s call her Fiona – asks – “Why do you stay?”, and the second woman who’s been slapped – jumper and patterned skirt, let’s call her Sally – replies – “Eh? Eh?, he says. Is this the silent treatment? Are we getting the silent treatment? Talk.”

I hope you find all of that confusing – those of us in the audience certainly did. One of the joys of theatre, though, is that we quickly start to tease meaningful patterns out of what was initially a chaotic mass of words. It soon became clear that we were watching four separate monologues, spoken by four women at different periods in 20th century history, intercut with each other and occasionally interacting one with another.

In the slap episode, Jane had been arguing with her husband about their daughter, and he’d hit her.  Sally had just been hit too, in her case presumably for not replying to some demand from her man.  Fiona’s question – “Why do you stay?” was directed to both Jane and Sally, in their different existences, questioning why they remain with obviously abusive partners

You can see now why I described ‘Sex and God’ as kaleidoscopic. As it unfolds, we have to keep track of events and scenes from four lives, given to us in reported speech as each woman tells us about things that have happened to her.  Linda McLean’s writing gives us fragments that we have to piece together, and often individual lines will be linked by a shared word.  A number of writers – notably Caryl Churchill – write lines which overlap, but it’s this use of a significant word to spring the focus from character to character that’s special, and very effective.

Here’s an example: the fourth character – dark haired, in a clinging maroon dress – let’s call her Lizzie – is deeply, passionately in love with her man. “…I only feel his breath on my hair and on my neck and I’m not listening to anything else, nothing, no words come close to this listening in my skin.” As Lizzie finishes, Jane starts up – “As if she’s the only one who ever felt the skin of a man’s body, and his need, and wanted it on her…” But Jane starts her lines before Lizzie ends; they talk over each other for a second or two, and the key word – ‘skin’ – is delivered simultaneously. That gives the word ‘skin’ twice the volume, twice the importance. It also points up the shared sensuality of physical touch that both women experience.

Another example: Lizzie is talking about the number of babies she’s had. “…if there wasn’t already one already growing in me he’d make another one now. It’s a gift and a curse all at the same time. How many? How many?? ” Then we cut to Fiona, who’s at university and is musing on the number of men she’s had sex with – “Seven at the last count. Not that I’m keeping count but someone asked me and I had to go through them in order …” That ‘How many?’ seamlessly linking the two monologues – and cleverly demonstrating the difference in the lives of Lizzie, who lived before the era of easily available contraception, and Fiona, a modern woman who sees control of her own sexuality as her right.

Achieving these effects demands precision in line delivery, which the actors managed faultlessly time and again. Director Tonje Wik Olausson got superb performances out of her cast – not just the spoken words but also the movement and interaction of the four bodies in the acting space. Separate or together. Jane on her knees, scrubbing the floor while the others watch. Or Lizzie, quivering in the throes of orgasm. Or Sally, bent over a stool, flinching from her husband’s blow. Or Fiona in labour, sitting with legs spread through the upturned stools while the others hold her.

‘Sex and God’ attempts to give us a sense of what it’s like being a woman.  As a man, this reviewer was made to think about what makes up that tangled mix – parental responsibility, love, economic subjugation, sexual desire, physical violence and oppression, religious fervour, personal development. All these events were given as monologue, or portrayed as physical theatre with consummate skill by the actors – their only props were the white stools, all the rest was done with body language and tone of voice.

So there they were – Jane, a Scottish housemaid from early in the last century, oppressed by her husband, and having to conceal her child from her employers. She finds solace and meaning in religion and the Temperance League – “Whisky is the Devil’s work”. Then there’s Lizzie, constantly having babies with her adored man, but unable to provide for them and drifting into alcohol and drug addiction (maybe Jane was right about the whisky).

Sally’s from a later era, probably the sixties, wanting a career of her own while her husband resents her independence – “I’m the one with the job. I’m the one with the job I hate. We don’t need a wife with a job”. And lastly Fiona, the first in her family to go to University. Later she travels – discovers poverty in South America and experiences religious miracles in Italy. In Israel she comes very close to death – “I get off a bus in Haifa. There’s a woman who looks pregnant behind me. I stop to let her go before me but she signals her stomach and waves me on”. In a last act of kindness or solidarity, the suicide bomber spared a fellow woman.

A truly international production – the Norwegian director had Ailis Duff (English) as Jane, Anna Carfora (Italian) as Lizzie, Eva O’Connor (Irish) as Sally, and Anne Bertreau (French) as Fiona.   The actors delivered their lines quite fast, and that occasionally made them rather difficult to follow. That’s really the only thing holding ‘Sex and God’ back from being an Outstanding production.

So many fragments, so many connections to arrange and rearrange in my mind.  So many facets of life over the last hundred years – caught and displayed in this production like in a masterpiece of Cubist painting.