Play turns up the heat on Edinburgh sauna crackdown

Picture: Toby Willliams
Picture: Toby Willliams
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A CONTROVERSIAL clampdown on Edinburgh’s sex workers and police raids on the city’s saunas are to inspire a Fringe show based on real-life accounts.

Audiences of just two at a time will be taken to a private flat in the city for an intimate “verbatim theatre” experience lasting up to 45 minutes.

Director Cora Bissett. Picture: John Devlin

Director Cora Bissett. Picture: John Devlin

The new show’s creator says he wants the “visceral” £14-a-head show, entitled Menage, to redefine how audiences think of sex workers and their “profession”.

It has been announced just months after a report found that sex workers in Edinburgh were facing increased health risks, with sexually transmitted diseases on the increase and fewer sex workers using condoms.

Many of the city’s sex workers are said to be operating from other venues in the city, including private flats and lapdancing bars, as a result of the authorities changing tack in 2014 in the months following the creation of Police Scotland, the new national force.

Ryan Good, a New York-based actor, writer and director, has carried out interviews in Edinburgh, London, Melbourne and Adelaide for the show, which has been in development for nearly two years.

There was something about the sauna that really interested me

Good says he wants to give a voice to women whose lives have been affected by police raids on saunas in the capital. The move to scrap the historic regulation of Edinburgh’s sex trade after three decades signalled the end of the council effectively turning a “blind eye” to prostitution at licensed premises.

The earlier police raids, which led to sauna licences being revoked, uncovered alleged evidence of organised crime. A number of individuals appeared in court earlier this year to face charges relating to saunas in the city.

When the council announced plans to ditch the licensing of massage parlours in January 2014, it insisted it had been forced to act after it became clear it was “no longer appropriate” to award them entertainment licences.

But the move was condemned by organisations such as Scot-Pep, a support group for sex workers, which warned it would drive many of them underground, put more of them at risk of attack and lead to an increase in infection rates.

Good, 33, said: “I was performing comedy a couple of years ago in a couple of different pubs on the Free Fringe and would cut through an alley just off the Cowgate as I rushed between them.

“There was something about the sauna that was down the alley that really interested me theatrically. I just thought it would be a good place to put on a show. After the Fringe finished and I had some time off I popped into the sauna to have a chat with some of the women there. That was the beginning of the idea to do a kind of character study show.

“I was living in London and came back to Edinburgh last autumn and tried to connect with the owners of the sauna and found it had been closed down, as was the case with a number of other establishments. I read up on what had happened with the various shutdowns and discovered the story of a sex worker who had been the victim of an assault, who gave an interview saying the lives of sex workers were being put at risk by the police. I felt there was now a more pressing narrative and that the show had to be done as soon as possible.”

Menage will be premiered in Edinburgh this summer five years after the launch of Scottish director Cora Bissett’s play Roadkill, which tackled the impact of human trafficking, staged before just a handful of audience members in a private flat on London Road.

Good, whose show will be staged several times a day during the Fringe, said: “I hope the audience feels like they’ve gotten to know one of these people afterwards. I think they may be surprised. There are some really vibrant souls out there. But the more I talk to these people, the more I feel connected to them and scared for their safety. The new rules in Edinburgh are endangering an entire group of people.”

A council spokesman said: “The city is pleased to host the world’s leading arts festivals and recognises it deals with challenging and diverse issues such as this.”

Police Scotland said it would not comment due to pending legal proceedings.