The preset for OPIA Theatre Company’s Unnatural Selection makes a rather accurate observational comment on a doctor’s waiting room. Two smartly dressed women sit bored, one picking lint off of her red business suit, the other jotting aimlessly in a journal. Elevator Muzak plays in the background.
The piece begins with the introductory voiceover of a television game show. The piece is set in an alternative reality where women are forced to compete to be chosen by a mystery male “selector” with whom they will then procreate. It’s a play on ITV’s ‘Take Me Out’. The catch – and yes it’s a dark one? Each woman who fails to win the competition after three weeks will be forced into surgery to have her vagina sown closed. The setting is the studio’s green room, and the plot focuses on this week’s four female contestants 50 minutes before show time.
The tone of the outset has a Hunger Games flavour to it, and makes the preset’s static vibe feel like a misstep. The green room setting itself is also problematic because everything that is happening is happening elsewhere off stage. As a result, there is a lot of exposition in the script right the way through to explain what is going on.
The setup itself has some potential. We see how this dystopian society forces women to compete and turn against each other in a way that our reality – in less dramatic ways – does in someways mirror. The four women, all characters costumed in block colours are somewhat forced into stereotypes– Bella is beautiful, Esther is intelligent, Rhianna is bawdy, and Nicky is honest – all take turns picking and being picked at. Everyone has their own strategy for winning the selector’s heart, and there is no clear winner. Yet despite such distinct character types, the fact that the actors are all playing bold stock characters means that unfortunately none of the four performers are given the opportunity to showcase much acting merit.
But the setup, though explained and pondered to some length, proves weak under even slight scrutiny. There is one winner each week, so only 52 people a year can reproduce. What happens to all of the women who don’t even get on the show? That’s an incredible bottleneck. It’s also easy to feel disgusted with the government’s barbaric idea, and with the selector himself. But if there is only one male ‘selector’ each week, aren’t these gawking men facing a similar dilemma? What consideration has been made for the LGBT community? Finally, no one mentions fertility tests. What happens if a winner cannot give birth?
We’re told after the bows that the piece is about female genital mutilation (FGM). This came as a surprise. While the consequences at stake for losers were made clear, the specifics of the surgery certainly feel like they take a back seat. Driving the plot for the majority of the performance is the interplay of the competing women. From a positive perspective, this pushed me to go home to do my research on an issue that I knew little about outside of school biology and the Guardian’s recent FGM campaign. Perhaps the play intended to generate this curiosity and generate a conversation, but the decision to appropriate the concept into a fictional dystopia based so clearly on British culture left me even more confused. The reasons that FGM actually takes place oversees have not been transposed. From what I have now read, it seems that full infibulation is not intended to limit reproduction at all, as the gameshow intends. In fact: in most cases it is usually reversed, and in gruesome fashion, when a woman marries.
I left feeling that OPIA Theatre Company had allowed a well-intentioned idea to drift off course. They have tried to marry their concept and cause in a way that could have been ambitious and enlightening, but is in fact ill-fitting and a little bit baffling.
Unnatural Selection played at Theatre N16 from August 1-2. It will play at Chiquito from August 21-27 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. See the OPIA Theatre Company website for more information and tickets.