The violent and sexual exploitation of women is a prevalent topic at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Of course it is about time that writers and directors should turn their attention to these issues, yet my experience in Edinburgh has proven what a difficult subject it is for theatre makers to tackle. There is a delicate balance between honestly portraying the issue so that it pricks the conscience and going so far that the audience shuts off, numbed by the horror of the woman’s experience. Two plays I have seen have dealt with the issue in contrasting ways, and both leave a very different impression.
Emma Thompson presents: Fair Trade is a simply staged verbatim account of two women’s experiences of being trafficked to the UK to work as prostitutes. As we understand the conditions of their home life and feel the seduction that the promise of a new life in London holds, the women’s repetition of the line ‘what would you have done’ strikes a chord. The harrowing, numbing pain of prostitution is portrayed silently and sensitively, giving you space to think about the problem presented before you.
I find myself feeling guilty for spending my money on having a good time at this bourgeois indulgence of an arts festival, while around the world, and in this very city, women live in these conditions. How can we smile and laugh when this goes on every day? Yet I am reminded that this is the point of theatre – to draw our attention to such horrors and make them feel so real that we can no longer ignore them as we go about our daily lives.
Fair Trade manages this deep personal change in a way that Sam Holcroft’s While You Lie at the Traverse Theatre does not. Starting out like a simple rom-com, it quickly descends into a dark underworld, as two couples embark on criss-crossing paths of deviant sexuality and the exercise of unequal power. In common with Fair Trade, where the role that women themselves play in sex trafficking is presented as a sad truth, the contribution of women to their own exploitation in While You Lie is absolutely gutting, and we begin to question whether there is any real difference between a prostitute and a woman using her sexuality to get a promotion.
Unfortunately, rather than carefully exploring these themes, While You Lie is grotesque, making the more sensitive audience member (me) shy away from its depictions of abuse in horror, rather than assessing them intelligently. The crescendo of the piece is a violent orgy of chicken legs, blood and knives – a scene so far removed from reality that it cheapens the rest of the play and you leave slightly disgusted and disbelieving.
These are not the only plays on such themes at the Fringe, and I will not pretend for one minute that they make for easy viewing. Yet perhaps it is when we are having the time of our lives that brutal reminders about what life is like for others can be at their most powerful. Done well this will increase awareness and inspire action, done badly it will alienate and offend – the stories and lives that are at stake are too important for it to not be treated responsibly.