Wednesday 24 June 2020

On theatrical nudity

Here's a blog from exactly seven years ago, which I thriftily recycle. It's prompted by the recent closure of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. an early casualty of the Covid-19 disaster. There will no doubt be many others.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Theatrical nudity

In tiny font on a flier for a new play at a local theatre is the warning - Contains mild nudity.

Mild nudity?

I asked a friend."Bums" she replied, instantly. 

I suppose such a warning - previously confined to loud noises and strobe lighting - derives from those little labels on CD cases that say things like Features mild comedy peril or Contains sexually explicit images or (and this is a favourite) Contains language.

A few months ago I went to see a new production of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. Outside the auditorium was a note, erratically capitalised, informing audiences that: 

This Production contains Haze effects, Strong language, smoking, Nudity and gunshots.

How's that for a spoiler? 

An audience expecting nudity will not, one assumes, be particularly surprised or offended by it - so why bother to do it? By which I mean two things: why include nudity in Chekov in the first place and, if it's included, why tell the audience in advance? 

The nudity (or upper-case Nudity) in this Seagull was a single female breast, very briefly exposed and I expect only fully visible from the first three rows of the stalls. A single breast is not 'bums', admittedly, so it counts as nudity (or Nudity) rather than merely mild nudity. The much-anticipated smoking predictably set off a barrage of bronchitic coughing in an audience that was in any case prone to hack and splutter noisily and phlegmily throughout the entire performance. The gunshots were loud but again expected; the Haze effects were simply haze effects (prompting another burst of hacking and wheezing) while the Strong language wasn't Strong so much as averagely coarse and, in a Chekovian context, both annoying and distracting. The cigarette moments failed to convince because actors have now lost the art of smoking, just as they appear to have forgotten how to eat a stage meal.

Speaking of nudity - do any of my older readers remember that byword for permissiveness Oh! Calcutta? A theatrical review devised in 1970 by the critic (and what I like to think of as 'enfant provocateur') Kenneth Tynan which featured, as an opener and until the understandably angry author withdrew permission for its use, Samuel Beckett's short play Breath? Tynan inserted, in Beckett's innocuous stage directions calling for miscellaneous trash, the phrase 'including nude bodies'.

The production was full of naked cavorting which pulled in huge crowds during its long run of nearly 4,000 performances. The title was taken from the French phrase "O quel cul t'as!"  (meaning "Oh! What an arse you've got"), and this reminds me that the catch-phrase of the camp comedian Larry Grayson - "Shut that door!" - was based on his attempts to pronounce "Je t'adore". But I digress.

Getting back to theatrical health and safety warnings - I do see why the use of strobe lighting effects should be flagged up to protect the epileptic. Not that one sees them much any more. Strobe lighting effects I mean, not epileptics. But I'm annoyed by the tendency, no doubt driven by the desire to pre-empt complaints by affronted ticket-holders, to give away elements of the play. What next? This production features a ghost, stabbing, madness, suicide and flights of angels?

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