Standing outside a flat ten minutes away from Nicholson Street, two women argue with a policeman in the window frame. Once inside, one of those women is on a table top, the other handing out biscuits and cheese as fifteen anxious audience members sit down on stools and sofas. Hula House is a disorientating experience. Attempting to provide an insight into the lives of women entangled in the UK’s muddled laws surrounding sex work, it is brave in its efforts and clever in its execution.
The show’s genius is in its deliberate ambiguity. It forces you to enter a distorted reality where everything is make-believe, and nothing, not even seemingly innocent fellow audience members, can be trusted. The genuine accounts of sex workers, who influenced this piece from its inception, is never too far from the surface; as Sarah Xanthe and Jenny Kondol remind us, exposing their limitations as performers. Immediately given false names on arrival, and being forced to play a series of “games” that surge from fun to disturbing, the audience are suitably uncomfortable, a sense of insecurity born out of not knowing what will come next, and what is real.
Developed in conjunction with the English Collective of Prostitutes, Hula House is a tongue-in-cheek exposition of what reality is for working women. Styling itself as an invitation to a ‘brothel’, it exposes the absurdity that two women working on the same premise, even to ensure safety in numbers, is considered a brothel by law.
Xanthe and co-writer Kondol step between the boundaries of performer and the characters they are trying to portray. Spinning the audience out of the trance they have created, they remind us on occasion that ‘this is not their story’, begging the question, whose story is it? Suspending audience engagement with the piece reveals its nakedly political framework. Hula House, rid of the affectations of lighting and sound, steps on the boundaries of theatre. The incredibly loose script and the shepherding of the audience from room to room constitute a sloppy production in the traditional sense, but remain an effective immersion tactic. Ever elusive, the impact of Hula House is in the confusion and controversy it sparks.
Hula House is a site-specific piece that played on August 23 as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It will transfer to London in September as part of Calm Down, Dear, the Camden People’s Theatre’s festival of feminist work. For more information, visit Permanently Visible Productions’ website.