Knowns, unknowns

15 April 2019

Marina Johnson struggles to source the truths behind Things We Do Not Know

I desperately wanted to be on board with Process Theatre’s piece of verbatim work exploring the lives of sex workers in Bristol. I was intrigued by the show’s concept. It’s exactly the kind of work I want to be encouraging the making of: political and socially angled experimental work, stories of women told by women and work that is tackling an injustice that needs addressing.

The ensemble wholesomely and earnestly tell us the stories of these women, shaped specifically to make us care about a really pertinent social issue by an important and effective charity. They weave together the more harrowing points of the personal tales against beautiful harmonies and gentle physical percussion, deftly undercutting the sadness with hope.

However, just when the message of the show has worn you down with the sad repeating tales of abuse, addiction and abandonment and when the facts have piled up against your psyche. That is when the show chooses to step away from what they have built with an epilogue that claims “we do not know why society failed these women”.

But we do, don’t we? We have just spent an hour looking a variety of repeating reasons for the taboo around sex work in our current society, haven’t we? This is the the exact reason this show exists. Isn’t it?

This really puts a shadow across all that has come before. If you can hear these stories in the women's own words, if you can see the facts chalked out onto the ground in front of you, and if you can watch the ensemble run out of words and get reduced to desperate gestural movement reminiscent of sign-language and onwards into more abstract dance as they struggle to communicate with words alone. If you can make this show, how can you claim to not know why society failed these women. By you are naming the show Things We Do Not Know, you deconstruct the power of the message you have built so far.

The reasons the show has been made are a bit unclear. There is a perceived distance from the performance group and the women they portray. The text and audio sources drawn on in the show are from women Process Theatre have not met and who are presented to us under a pseudonym. They are women who were interviewed by an individual unreferenced in the show. Process Theatre were then approached by One25 with the recorded interviews for them to work with.

These women, the real humans the show wants us to remember, are performed in a distant manner. They are presented to us, rather than deeply characterised and it is a presentation that borders on impersonation. This makes them come across to the audience not as fully formed people. I find it hard to buy this fresh-faced student with a clipped voice as a fifty year old thickly-voiced-Londoner. It is unusual in a verbatim piece, for the people at the heart of it to feel conspicuously absent.

If the show was made simply to promote the charity, great job – but it feels like something bigger is being attempted. The show is treading the tried and tested route of trying to reach universality through a finely-focused lens on locality. Here they managed to build a show that spoke truth to power – but they undermined the message by refusing to claim responsibility for the stories they show.

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney