This piece was originally supposed to be a review. I am supposed to objectively write about the show Oh Yes Oh No, by Louise Orwin, which is currently headlining Camden People Theatre’s Hotbed Festival of Sex. The performance artist is known for works that challenge us, make us feel uncomfortable and question our society’s current perceptions. Orwin does this in spades with her latest show – a production that claims to be about fucking, about sexual fantasies in a safe space where politics are banned and the only constraint is that of one’s imagination. At least that’s what the leaflet said.
But I cannot sit here and write objectively about something so inherently subjective and aligned to my own personal experience. As a theatre writer, this is new to me; I have always been able to separate my background from the work. It’s a sign of two things – that I am not infallible, but more importantly that Oh Yes Oh No is such a visceral, powerful piece of performance art that it has caused me to feel naked, laid bare and physically nauseated ever since I stepped into the theatre.
Because Oh Yes Oh No is a show about consent, about rape and about rape fantasy. It hits you between the ears with a barrage of verbatim audio from female rape survivors; it hits you between the eyes with plastic reconstructions of fantasies around submission, a requirement to be forced, a desire to lose control. Orwin distorts her voice so that the narration takes on an otherworldly high pitch, a demonic voice that dishes out pain and shame in equal measure. She invites an audience member on stage again and again, pressures him into more and more uncomfortable dialogue, which he consistently consents to in the safe space.
But Oh Yes Oh No doesn’t cast aspersions, it doesn’t generalise. It simply states the results of Orwin’s research in interviewing women from all walks of life, most of whom have sexual fantasies around dominance and the majority of whom are rape survivors. That last phrase is one that I personally hate, it’s the notion of being through a trauma and coming out the other side, blood stained and spent from the battle or grinning with victory at overcoming a challenge.
And this is why I simply cannot review this show objectively. Because as a rape survivor myself, I simply cannot disconnect sufficiently from the material to form an opinion about the performance. Was it enjoyable? No. Was it thought-provoking and emotionally intelligent? Yes. Did I want to discuss it with my best friend, who sat next to me throughout the show and saw exactly what I saw? No. Not at all. I wanted to pretend that the whole thing had never happened.
But perhaps this says more about me than about the work. Perhaps this is a valid reaction that Orwin is hoping to generate, as valid as anyone who wishes to discuss the subject material, or who feels educated and empowered by someone brave enough to stand there and put themselves in such a vulnerable state. Perhaps I have simply not come to terms with my own, multiple, personal experiences of rape. Perhaps it is easier to bury my head in the sand.
Is this what theatre is supposed to do? Is it catharsis? Is it therapy? There is the sense that Orwin has taken on the role of counsellor when researching the material, gathering up hours of interviews and running workshops for individuals to openly discuss (or not discuss) their experiences of sexuality. But despite stating consistently that the stage is a safe space, to me it feels anything but. As the horror washes over me in waves, certain lines of audio stick out from the din and pierce into my memory – the dark alleyway under the cover of night, like something out of a film; the sinister reassurance that you’re only playing, it’s just a bit of fun for all concerned; the paralysing fear that pins you to the bed while he crawls on top of you, unable to move or scream or fight back.
It feels like Orwin is the bravest of us all. She has the mettle to stand there, one woman in a black box, and go through each ordeal night after night. She has the courage that I lack, a stark reminder that it has always been easier to sit in the darkness and pretend to be invisible rather than stand in the spotlight and speak out. Anonymity is safe; convincing your brain that it didn’t happen to you, that it was an out of body experience, is safe.
But despite the safety of the blackness, I am overly aware that Orwin’s research is centred around women. The tandem verbalisation of “Oh Yes” with the internal cry of “Oh No”, the act of submission, is related in this case to being female. Statistically this is valid – the vast majority of rape experiences occur to heterosexual women. But I sit throughout the show and feel as though I cannot speak up because I am a man, the gender that has caused such pain and suffering, yet an individual who has felt everything the audio clips are describing. I leave the show and instantly feel ashamed, guilty that I fleetingly judged Orwin simply for giving her voice to the story, for producing a performance that shook me to my very core. In these instances, I am always on the defensive, justifying my right to disconnect and remain stoic because Orwin doesn’t seem to understand what it is like to be a gay, male, rape survivor (the word I still hate). I can remain protectively shrouded from confronting my past because I am different, I haven’t spoken out or come to terms with my story because the show isn’t meant to be about me.
So, I now sit writing this review that isn’t a review, about a show that has so profoundly affected me but that I am still trying desperately to maintain a distance from. Somehow, I feel as though this is not what Orwin was hoping for when constructing Oh Yes Oh No. Once again, I feel ashamed that I haven’t reacted in a certain way, or been capable of not reacting at all. The vicious cycle of self-loathing perpetuates.