A play about bodies, and the minds that sculpt them, Stripped gradually peels away the layers of hypocritical gloss that shroud the politics of gender. Ollie poses as Lola’s life model: whilst they both pretend to be strangers from the outset, we come to realise the lasting implications of an evening they once shared.
Charles Reston, as Ollie, and Antonia Kinlay, as Lola, tentatively enter the stage as actors, who seem to be consciously performing ulterior versions of themselves. Writer Hew Rous-Eyre builds their dialogue out of stereotypes, as their respective opinions are gendered, and then polarised. Lola appears to be the nonchalant, self-assured feminist, whilst Ollie is the nauseatingly woke “beta” male, chronically lacking in self-awareness. To begin with, their characters are hilariously armed with unconvincing millennial sarcasm, pointing to our necessary reliance (as writers, actors, directors, audience members, and citizens in a sexist society) on stereotype, as a means of navigating the treacherous realm of the #MeToo movement. Yet this thin veneer of cliché decomposes slowly and beautifully, as the narrative is literally stripped away. Layers give way to layers, and various complexities rise and pop like soapy bubbles, leaving a provocative sting rather than a tangible conclusion.
Ollie not only commandeers Lola’s body through rape, but his process of fictionalisation re-writes her trauma into his fairy tale. Her body becomes a text intended to temper his loneliness and fuel romantic fantasy, posing questions about the ethical consequences of bending people into fiction. There is a hardness to Lola, an inward-looking fear, a reactionary resistance to being read. I feel as though she plays to the idea of existing as a woman who has been sculpted by a man, thereby tracking the lasting consequences of rape. Just as Ollie and Lola seek to situate themselves within their own colliding narratives, we are forced to declare our own allegiance. In the same vein as Park Chan-Wook’s film ‘The Handmaiden’, the plot-twist threads together a seemingly bottomless conversation. As members of the audience, we are chucked into indeterminate waters.
Director Max Elton ensures that Stripped is indeed stripped-back. It is a play that shuns excess. Words are unfolded by wit, each thought picked up, turned around, and thrown back into the mix. There are no spare parts. Ollie’s Che Guevara poster, for example, not only validates Lola’s version of events by proving some sort of memory – it also embeds this notion of multi-faceted interpretability into the fabric of the play.
The play is sustained by a conversation. One that stops meandering about half an hour in, instead giving way to a pervasive interrogation. Lola’s studio space is littered with books by John Berger and Kate Tempest, yet it manages to adopt the atmosphere of a courtroom, muddling the boundary between the political and aesthetic impulses that underlie any work of art.
Ollie says it was romance whilst Lola says it was a rape. And the play asks us whether there is a distinction between these two narratives. We are made to question the frames we give to an event that is remembered, mis-remembered, or not at all remembered. Rape exists outside of memory, and outside of story-telling. And that is precisely why Stripped lingers awhile in the mind. It is a play that revolves around a paradoxical aim, attempting to grasp some sort of humanity that is wilfully placed outside of the theatrical realm.
Stripped is playing the Kings Head Theatre until 16 September. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website.