The year is 1965. A theatre in the West End. A dusky native in period garb lies prone on a kitchen table. That great classical actor Barry Stanton looms over her, “Now my dear it is time for your deflowering”. He broached his breaches. The plot then required soldiers to break into the house and save the native from ravishing. Instead the knob came off the kitchen door.
There was silence; apart from the rattling of the handle and various ‘noises off’. Barry broke out into a sweat. He knew any kind of ‘deflowering,’ whatsoever, would result in the immediate closing of the play by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Barry played for time, and improvised madly. “Tusk, tusk. I urge you to abandon all your defences, my dear. I must gratify my lusts.” Barry dropped his breaches- realizing at that moment he was not wearing period underwear. Silence. Time passed. Barry shook. His whole world was coming apart. At that moment soldiers broke in through a high window and the play was saved. As was Barry’s career.
Three years later that whole theatrical edifice was ‘turned upside down’. On 27th September 1968 the office of the Lord Chamberlain was abolished. The curtain, literally, fell on centuries of theatre censorship. Within hours the musical ‘Hair’ premiered at the Shaftesbury theatre. It featured drug taking, anti war protests and lots of nudity. The theatrical landscape changed forever. There is a most wonderful exhibition at the V&A Museum which chronicles these developments in a much more thorough and detailed way than I have done.
There has been a long, rich and salacious history drawing together sex and the theatrical world. One only has to think of Nell Gwyn and her Oranges. (Yes, I know, I deserve to be shot for that clichéd allusion). Covent Garden was at the heart of this relationship. Sir John Fielding- he of the Bow Street runners and brother of the novelist and playwright Henry-described the area as, ‘the great square of Venus’. Drury lane was the draw, with Charles II, on his restoration, granting the theatres there a monopoly on spoken drama. The ‘Garden’, which runs alongside it, became a rich and fertile ground for the sex trade. (I love the fact that the girls-and often boys- were known as ‘Covent Garden Nuns’).
In 1760 Jack Harris, the Head Waiter at the Shakespeare Tavern, published his ‘List of Covent Garden ladies’. There is much debate as to whether the name ‘Harris’ was a pseudonym- what does seem indisputable is that whomsoever was the author he ended up as the Landlord of The Old Red Lion Pub Theatre in Islington.
Covent Garden became synonymous with prostitution; and even the term ‘flower seller’ was known as short hand for ‘prostitute’. I don’t think it any co- incidence that George Bernard Shaw, in his play Pygmalion, has Eliza Doolittle- herself a Covent Garden flower seller-shouting from the roof tops, ‘I’m a good girl I am’. Nowadays that steamy history of the Garden has long gone. Although funnily enough I was walking through Covent Garden last week and happened to notice a shop front with a rather beautifully lit display of a huge box of Durex as a centre piece. The shop was right beside the rear entrance of the Royal Opera House. So perhaps the relationship between the ‘pleasure principle’ and the theatrical world hasn’t been forgotten altogether.
When I began writing this article on ‘Sex in London Pub theatres’ a friend of mine said, “you’ll have to be quite creative, there’s not much room on those stages for sex”. In a way she identified the crux of the problem because the depiction of sex on the stage has been a notoriously difficult one. Virginia Woolf, writing about a performance of ‘La Ronde’, given for the Bloomsbury group, said the sex scenes made her feel very uncomfortable: “It was a great relief to me when hymns were sung”. It’s so odd that in a society where sex is omni-present in all forms of media, from music videos to film, the theatrical world finds it a very hard subject to address. Many would seem to prefer ‘hymn singing’ to ‘rumpy pumpy’.
Theatre directors, on the whole, run for the hills when confronted with putting sex on stage. Some are prepared to tackle it head on such as Michael Bogdanov in ‘Romans in Britain’ and his simulating of anal rape. But they are in a minority. Most theatre practitioners choose the ‘arty’ route.
When Sarah Water’s fairly racy novel ‘Tipping the Velvet’ was staged the sex was hinted at by acrobatics, circus skills and the liberal use of wind instruments. Charles Spencer in the Telegraph railed against this approach. In his review of the Blue Room he urged audiences ‘to lie back......and enjoy the sexuality on display.’ And when Nicole Kidman’s naked bottom hoved into view he described it as ‘pure theatrical Viagra.’
I count myself very much in the camp of those who shy away from the explicit use of sex on stage. When I directed ‘The Underpants’, at the Old Red Lion Pub theatre, I was awfully glad when an actor grasped a Weiner (sausage) to make a point rather than getting his ‘tackle out’. Certainly, in London Pub theatres, where audiences are very close ‘to the action’, sex is often talked about rather than depicted. That is not to say that we don’t see male and female nudity, masturbation and bisexual relationships, but they are given minority standing.
In Chris Hislop’s recent, very arresting ‘Gertrude’ by Howard Barker at Theatre N16, we did see glimpses of bare breasts but overwhelmingly the sex was just talked about. The Duke of Mecklenburg’s attempts to get into Gertrude’s knickers wasn’t shown. Instead he exhorted the lady, in words, to let him have his way: “I have an army on the frontier - show me your arse”.
When Sandra Dickinson was asked to simulate masturbation, in Keith Bunin’s play ‘The Unbuilt City’ at the King’s Head Pub Theatre, like the trooper she is she just got on with it. Although it didn’t stop her telling us (LPT Magazine) that she was ‘honestly pretty shocked seeing men in suspenders and stockings in the Rocky Horror show’.
Without a doubt all sorts of issues around sex are being discussed in London Pub theatres. Subjects as diverse as procreation, masturbation, menstruation, abortion, chem sex and conception are frequently tackled. They are though, on the whole, not shown. Perhaps it is the fact that sex on stage is done rather badly or that we find the whole thing toe curlingly embarrassing? I don’t know. Recently Awkward Productions presented ‘Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve fucked’ by Rob Hayes at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. The critics were beside themselves to laud the sheer brilliance of the acting and writing but kept very quiet about the amount of sex that was actually shown.
The playwright Laura Wade makes the point that ‘the theatre must find a way of embracing sex without it being too titillating’. The problem is that sex on stage doesn’t seem to be a spectator sport. Without doubt London Pub Theatres are talking about sex but the actuality of it seems to be at one remove. It’s as if they’re saying, rather chastely, ‘It’s all very interesting. I’ve never really tried it, but if I did I am not sure I would like it.’
Which brings me quite neatly to the late great Jacqueline Pearce, probably best remembered for her turn as Servalan in the cult sci-fi series Blake’s Seven. I had a ‘spit and a cough’ in a kids’ TV show she was doing. She was very late for the read through and when she arrived she apologised to the assembled hordes with the words, ‘Sorry I’m late. I was up all night fucking a Russian priest. Bloody wonderful.’
Which really does go to show the power of words.
Columnist Richard Braine is actor, director and playwright, most recently appearing in Holby City and best known for his role as Gussie Fink-Nottle in “Jeeves and Wooster”
NB: Awkward Converstions with Animals I've Fucked is transferring to the King's Head Theatre 12 - 27 April 2019 (www.kingsheadtheatre.com)
Images at top of page:
Left - Izabella Urbanowicz in the title role of ‘Gertrude - The Cry’ by Howard Barker at Theatre N16, The Bedford Pub
Right - Linus Karp in ‘Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve Fucked’ by Rob Hayes at Lion a Unicorn pub theatre
@December 2018 London Pub Theatres Magazine Ltd
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