Review: Sirens, Summerhall
Published in FEST, 17.08.2014
There are two types of sirens: those that draw you in and those that get you out of the way. The first sort—the stuff of Greek mythology—sing sailors to their deaths, luring them into shallow waters and onto the rocks beneath the surface. The second sort wail warnings in emergency situations. They are shrill and piercing, designed to repel.
To look at them, you assume the six young women in Ontroerend Goed’s latest belong to the former category. They’re dressed in ballgowns and all of them have done their hair. Their skin is unblemished and they look beautiful, confident and statuesque. Stood behind six music stands, they clear their throats and clasp their hands primly. Then they open their mouths and sing.
Awfully. Atonally. Deafeningly. They sing in such a way that the soundwaves seem to clatter off one another and buckle. Your ears ring. Your eyes wince. Your head starts to throb. My mind momentarily—and guiltily—flashes back to the squealing vixen at the start of Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities. This broken note goes on for ages.
Behind them, a video starts: silvery and translucent. You have to focus quite hard to recognise it for what it is—hardcore porn—but when you do, you see sirens. The women onscreen are all come hither stares and open-access policies. They lure by giving men exactly what they want.
Those onstage are different: they perform a recital of anxieties, irritations and infuriations; a litany of feminist complaints. Expensive face creams and beauty products, all deemed necessary. Famous, flawless women, all successful on and therefore complicit in patriarchal terms. “Sharapova is a skank,” spits one. So, apparently, is Mother Theresa. They deadpan misogynistic jokes, list men that have slapped their bums (Celebrities. My uncle.) and detail deep-set insecurities.
So what is Sirens? Is it a feminist action, designed to effect change in its audience and beyond? Or is it a portrait of a feminist movement: a kind of theatrical readymade testifying to the ideas and concerns of those onstage? I suspect, both at once.
As an action, Sirens is best at its most innocuous, when it levels accusations that those watching can’t wriggle out of it: those little compliments about someone’s looks, the gentlemanly etiquette that becomes a tad patronising. That’s not breaking new ground—see also the Everyday Sexism project—but where that reports on sexism elsewhere, Sirens manages to include us in the charge.
However, it’s also aware of its own fallibility. Sirens knows that it’s portraying a limited spectrum of feminism and womanhood: that others are worse off, that presenting six young white women doesn’t encompass feminism in total. As with Teenage Riot, Ontroerend Goed have placed something onstage for us to see it for what it is. The title and structure—the idea of Sirens, of attraction and repulsion—acts as commentary: it testifies to a generation that wants, for example, to look good without being gawped at.
There’s still a problem of process here though: Ontroerend Goed, a male-dominated company, determine how we should see these young women and Sirens doesn’t admit or unpick the power structures that have, however indirectly or inadvertently, shaped it as a piece. At some level, we need to know who decided how these six women should be costumed, for example, and how that decision was reached?
You see that kind of diligence in the emerging company Plunge Theatre’s confrontational piecePrivate View. It may be theatrically naïve and in need of a good director, but there’s a self-awareness that Sirens is missing. Three young women are “dolled up” in frocks so figure-hugging, they’re almost shrink-wrapped. They pout and pose ironically, awkwardly recreating Beyonce’s routines, to take down the imposed ideals of female beauty, but the trio still admit to being in thrall to those standards themselves. One notes the vigiliance with which they’re attending their bikini lines for the show’s costume changes. Another talks of the training runs countering the cakey calories consumed en route. It makes a somewhat baggy show that bit sharper.
Photograph: Stine Stampers