Interview: Donnacadh O’Briain, director of Peep

Three short plays, with a total cast of four, are repeated as in a real peepshow
Three short plays, with a total cast of four, are repeated as in a real peepshow
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NO dirty raincoats needed at the thinking person’s peep into the world of sex

YOU put on your dirty grey raincoat and walk furtively through the city crowds until you reach a dodgy-looking building topped by a flickering neon sign. Handing over your ticket, you enter a private booth, take a seat and lean forward. Keeping your smutty thoughts to yourself, you leer through a slot in the wall little bigger than a letterbox and observe the non-stop erotic action inside.

The sex show begins – but, this being the Edinburgh Fringe, all is not what it seems. You are not hanging around the city’s notorious “pubic triangle”, but enjoying a rather more high-minded show called Peep in the Pleasance Courtyard.

“It comes from a genuine desire to have a dedicated space where sex is the key agenda,” says theatre director Donnacadh O’Briain. “It’s something which is so important in our daily lives, and has huge repercussions on what we do and how we behave and relate to each other.”

With that in mind, he has constructed his own peepshow theatre, a cube three metres on each side, lined with a strip of two-way mirrors and surrounded by 12 individual booths for the audience. It’s built so the spectators can’t see each other. Because they’re wearing headphones, relaying a mixture of live speech and pre-recorded music, they can’t hear each other, either.

“They know each other is there, but they have no evidence,” O’Briain says. “The presence of the audience is a thought-provoking fact; your separation makes them more present in your imagination, particularly because we’re placing them in a context where traditionally people are alone in their own sexual activity.”

What they will see, however, is not pole dancing or tassel twirling, but one of three specially commissioned plays on the subject of sex. The authors are Pamela Carter, familiar to Scottish audiences through her work with Stewart Laing and the Traverse; Leo Butler, a Royal Court regular; and Kefi Chadwick, whose Mathematics of the Heart won Best New Play at last year’s Brighton Festival.

Carter’s Meat is about a relationship that runs into trouble when a woman looks at her partner’s internet browser history; Butler’s 69 is a stream-of-consciousness collage of characters – not all of them human – talking about sex, the body and the “sexual psyche”, and Chadwick’s SexLife plays with the idea of intimacy, exploitation and post-baby sex.

At only 20 minutes long, they will be repeated much like a real peepshow in which performers turn in the same routine several times on each shift. “It allows writers to write a short, stand-alone piece,” says O’Briain. “Great short work, like a short novella, does need that space, and Peep provides that.”

Having been intrigued by a newspaper article that claimed the British cannot put sex on stage without making it silly, O’Briain wondered if it would be possible to tackle the subject seriously.

“I did specifically go and get writers in their late thirties, early forties and have a good bit of life experience behind them,” he says. “I wanted sophisticated responses and sophisticated ideas to challenge people. There are things in all the pieces that I had never discussed in private in the way they are discussed in the plays.”

His brief to the writers was simple: the work should play to the strengths of this particular space, it would have a maximum cast size of four and the broad theme would be sex. Inspired by The Early Bird, a play by Butler that O’Briain staged in a Perspex box, he wanted to bring the intimate experience of sex into the public realm while retaining a sense of privacy.

“Rather than presenting the sexual body, we are representing the sexual mind,” he says. “There is nudity in it, but it’s a complex thing. In Kefi Chadwick’s piece, you have an empathetic experience with the characters, but it also makes you think about your own situation, being so close to a woman who is now naked and is taking a step which should never be witnessed by anyone.”

Also involved in the project are composer Nick Powell, known for his work in Scotland with Suspect Culture; Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, who has provided the sound system; and leading lighting designer Ben Ormerod, who recently worked on King Lear for Glasgow’s Citizens and The Tempest for Dundee Rep.

“The funny thing is, I went to Ben for advice,” says O’Briain. “I wanted to chat to him about it aesthetically, but he said he’d really like to do it. We don’t have the money for Ben Ormerod, but he liked the sound of it. It’s wonderfully warming when you get that, and that’s happened all the way along the line, with the writers as well.”

• Peep, Pleasance Courtyard, until 
27 August, hourly from 11am until 7pm.