Gracia Rios Calderon’s one-woman clown show, The Lesson, is not saying anything new, but why should it when the current state of sex education and sexual assault in Spain haven’t changed for what often feels like centuries? With mainstream media like Netflix’s Sex Education exposing our shortfalls and encouraging widespread candid conversations about sex, sexuality and consent, the theatre is called to speak to this narrative in brave, new and more inflamed languages. Calderon’s concept is a
valiant and exciting offering, but lacks conviction in practice.
The stage she sets is simplistic with an already sharp critical edge. With “this is not a box” written on the side of (dare I say) a cardboard box, and a score of actions on each seat prescribing what the audience can and cannot do to the performer, a discourse of consent, translation and communication is sparked. Unfortunately, this discourse is undermined when boundaries set by the audience are not always respected, as some spectators who elect not to interact, and are therefore instructed by an usher to not sit in the first row, are still interacted with and even brought on stage.
The most powerful part is the first ten minutes. We see a body, stuffed into a box, learning to walk, move and be again in context of the same world that elicited its trauma. Intricately jerking, stretching and contracting, the image of this emerging body is a beautifully simple yet skillful choreographic take on sexual assault survival.
Charged with a Frankenstein’s creature quality of being birthed out of the naivety of its creator, Calderon’s choreography also wields an exciting new language attacking poor sex education and the dangers born out of this irresponsibility, before the robotic masculine voice urging Calderon to give her testimony cuts through her clownish silence. It’s just a shame this section only lasts a few minutes before we witness a clown slowly unstick from her guns.
What is so joyous and cathartic about clowning is its silent conviction in presenting emotion and truth, but this piece didn’t quite commit. Perhaps in the excusably anxious pursuit of ensuring that difficult messages aren’t lost, The Lesson over-saturates a brilliant concept and intention with too many means of communication. Placards are read out and well-crafted visual jokes are explained until it is clear this is a show spattered with insecurity and scepticism when it comes to its audience’s understanding and engagement.
Calderon’s performance is a good effort embodied by the squeals, gasps, expressions, fiercely playful physicality and creative use of props (of course a dildo is involved). However, before wiping away the makeup at the end of the show and chanting “she is not silent”, she misses a trick by not thoroughly appropriating this form to more wholly contemplate the silence that survivors are often forced into. In drawing a bold line (using a sudden dramatic tonal shift) between a clown’s satyrical take on sex ed lessons and a horror take on sexual assault and gang rape, clowning’s depth of dark critical potential is abandoned where historic comic form and difficult modern narrative could have been more bravely married.
The ‘risky’ sexual examples of audience participation we are warned of in the blurb are all daring yet uncomfortably light farces of our dangerously heteropatriarchal system of sex education and sexual culture. Aside from this, however, there are some genuinely tender interactions between Calderon and her spectators – like when a woman helps her to wipe paint off her back – where her generous vulnerability is a vital reminder of the importance of support and solidarity amongst and with survivors.