Feature: The Wardrobe Ensemble shines a light on ‘shagging’

Let’s talk about sex. Embarrassment, awkwardness, and fear still shroud the topic. The Wardrobe Ensemble, an award-winning theatre company, is inviting audiences to experience its work, with hopes of making the conversation an easier one to have.

The production of 1972: The Future of Sex sees a fantastically bizarre backdrop come to life. The show uses a forward-thinking dynamic and derisive humour to “tell the story of three couples having sex for the first time on the night that David Bowie first appeared as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops”. An odd, pinpointed moment in time perhaps, but a carefully thought out and artistically assembled idea.

Directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones spearheaded the piece, first imagined to tackle the malaise around sex. “We were talking about making a show about sex, sexuality today, and what our experience of that is and was,” says Jones. “We decided to look for a time in history where we felt things changed, and where we could find the roots of where we are now.” After brainstorming a number of ideas and sifting through research after research, the ensemble zoomed in on the 70s, a pivotal period for sexuality. “Around the time, contraceptive pills became more available, abortion laws were changing, and people were consuming pornography differently with the invention of the VHS,” Jones continues. “We watched a video of Bowie on Top of the Pops as Ziggy Stardust, and read lots about how that was a liberating moment for many people. We could see a direct correlation between then and where we are today in terms of influences of popular culture. And it just landed.”

The weight of the topic proved difficult to fully capture at first. Yet the lack of an artistic director, due to the preference of a horizontal way of functioning within the company, made the process fruitfully challenging. The collaboration of eleven writers refined the theme, in order to reflect a more human experience. “A conversation about shagging is also a conversation about a whole host of other prickly subjects: power, gender, choice, representation, equality, identity and oppression just to name a few,” says Brennan. But “we’re by no way telling an audience the answers to these things,” adds Jones. “It’s about holding a mirror to the people on the stage, and hopefully the audience will see a reflection of themselves in that.”

What makes a good piece of theatre, by the ensemble’s ethos, is to be thoughtfully hilarious. It’s all about being entertaining as well as thought-provoking. “Making people laugh and being silly is a very important part of our work,” says Jones. And devising work to make audiences think is high on Brennan’s wish list. “We want to leave audiences with the sense that sex and sexuality is complicated, and we don’t quite know the answers,” he says. “I think that’s the purpose of good art: to push you to reassess something you thought that you knew or understood. I hope that people will reconsider their sex lives.”

“As a group of young people we’re in a process of defining who we are and what we think about the world,” he continues. “So our work tries to reflect this confusion and messiness. Young people often respond well to our work because it’s rare that theatre acknowledges the ability of our generation. So often we’re not directly talking about millennials’ experience, but talking about the world in a way that only millennials know how… I’d hope in the future we’ll continue to be able to talk about all aspects of sex, sexuality in art, online and person to person.” Through a humorous medium, the directors want to start a dialogue that will make sex feel “less embarrassing”, “melt away” shame from the equation, and develop a healthier relationship with sex.

The theme oozes intrigue, and with the horizontal and democratic dynamic of the ensemble, 1972: The Future of Sex promises to be rare, bold, and exciting.

1972: the Future of Sex will open UK tour at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol (8 – 26 March) and will play for two weeks at Shoreditch Town Hall, London (12 – 23 April).

Image credit: Jack Offord
Trailer credit: Tom Brennan