Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Emma Thomson Presents Fair Trade presents sex trafficking as being like the Dick Whittington story with a sad ending. To women in poorer parts of the world – Albania and Darfur, in this case – London is a capital of glamour, where the streets are paved with gold and where dreams will come true. The script takes as its central concern those women and the destruction of their dreams, as they are deceived by the people they trusted. This approach humanises the issue and gives an audience an access point, but also runs the risk of painting its characters as black-and-white caricatures.
The whole thing takes place inside a metal frame, almost a huge cage allowing the women inside to be seen, but clearly marking the limits of their freedom. The metal bars are also useful for hanging props from, and are frequently used to make minimal set alterations that have a big impact on so small a space. That and the use of large cardboard boxes (marked ‘FRAGILE’, and maybe containing smuggled people?) for the bigger pieces of set allow this to be a slick, tightly-plotted production. The scene changes aren’t allowed to drag, as the cast shift boxes while talking – they create an airport doorway that becomes a Tube turnstile in the blink of an eye, and not long afterwards it’s a bed. But the cage works best when it frames a mock panto scene featuring Cinderella, Buttons and Cinderella’s new fairy godmother. Women following their dreams into the UK are paralleled with Cinderella going off with a fairy godmother, and there’s an uncomfortable feeling that in some circumstances we the audience might encourage a young woman to follow such dreams (which is fine when they don’t end up being sex trafficked). Regarded as commodities, these trafficked women find their feelings ignored as their hopes and dreams are exploited.
However, that’s nothing to the discomfort caused by the brief auction scene. The stage is filled with a cattle market, framed within that cage still. However, it’s not cows that the salesman is offering, but women – seemingly drugged to the eyeballs and unaware of their surroundings – treated exclusively as commodities. This is the seedy, grimy face of the UK sex trade struggling to legitimise itself as an ‘industry’, and it stands in sharp contrast with the play’s ending. As houselights gently rise, the play’s verbatim nature comes to light with the two trafficked women saying they’ve reached the end of their stories and asking if someone will play them onstage. It’s a clever move, because – having offered the possibility of hope for women no longer being abused – the play suddenly reminds us that it is real and is happening all of the time. With the prospect that the characters might be in the audience itself, head start to turn, eyes check to see if anyone could be one of the onstage women. Clever stuff.
But that focus on women is in danger of making the men seem like serial abusers. All men, not just some, because the men that pay for services in this drama are all pretty generic and it begins to look as though the trafficked women should never trust a man. The audience is given a story that is fast-moving without losing sight of its key figures, but with the victims painted so clearly, it’s a shame that this play uses such broad brushstrokes for its other characters. Everyone seems to either be an exploiter of women or a faceless representative of the state, processing one of the countless casefiles at the back of the stage, each casefile representing some trafficked woman.
This play raises a couple of difficult questions, but could delve much deeper – especially if it allowed for more focus on the actual crime and less on the victims. Of course they’re being exploited, but can we find out why and thus question the causes?