Fringe reviews: It's still a man's world

Don't believe that men are suddenly the sexual underdogs. Here is ample proof of the subservient and powerless role many women are forced to perform.




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IN THE Western world, the idea of patriarchy has gone out of fashion. Serious newspapers publish stories suggesting that women are now the dominant sex; but the Fringe tells a different story, not only about societies where law and customs still blatantly discriminate against women and gay men, but about the seedy sexual underside of our own culture.

Anupama Chandrasekhar's Free Outgoing – playing at the Traverse in a production from the Royal Court Theatre's Genesis Project – is a brilliantly intense and fast-moving family drama, set in an apartment block in 21st-century Chennai, about the catastrophe that overtakes a hardworking middle-class widow, Malini – magnificently played by Lolita Chakrabarti – and her teenage son and daughter, when images of the daughter making love to her boyfriend are filmed on his mobile phone, and circulated across the globe via the internet.

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Chandrasekhar makes a superb job of sketching the nightmare escalation of the family crisis, from a brief suspension from school to expulsion for both children, the loss of Malini's job and eviction from their flat, besieged by crowds of angry protesters. Caught helplessly between the postmodern world that made this crisis possible, and a traditional – almost Victorian – culture which does not hesitate to visit collective punishment on the families of errant girls, Malini and her children find themselves outcasts, with no man to speak for them. And it finally becomes clear that the hated media, which helped to destroy them, represent the only alternative power in the land that might also be able to save them.

Chandrasekhar's play ends abruptly at this crisis-point, as if she can hardly bear to imagine how much worse Malini's fate might become; and some of the acting is a little rough-edged here and there. But the story itself, and Chakrabarti's heroic performance, serve as a sharp reminder of the savage cruelty of the sexual double standard to which some in Britain now seem eager to return; and of a world in which a family headed by a woman is seen, by many, as no family at all.

Down in the cellars of the Pleasance UnderGrand, the London-based Iranian company 30 Bird present Plastic, an abstract installation and meditation on Teheran's booming reputation as a centre for plastic surgery, particularly for sex-change operations. The show consists of a series of tableaux linked by passages of film projected onto rough walls, and by occasional brief monologues; while the themes include shifting gender identities, the removal and pickling of sexual organs, and the sense of some lost, flowery garden of sexual delight, hurt, damaged or hidden.

The single most theatrical gesture in the whole show lies in the separation of male and female audience members, who follow slightly different paths through the experience; this alone is enough to provoke thought about how sharply gender-divided societies accentuate difference, and perhaps heighten desire. But elsewhere, and despite occasional moments of superb dance and movement, the show seems a little slight and unfocused – and, at a bare 40 minutes, it leaves the audience wanting much more.

It's the young Paper Birds company from Leeds, though, who bring the whole issue of sex and gender back home this year, with In a Thousand Pieces, a sharp, compassionate 50-minute show about the fate of women trafficked into Britain for sex. It's not a new theme, but following intensive research, and an opportunity to work with the Polish-based group Teatr Piesn Kozla, the Paper Birds have produced a deeply felt show that uses voice, movement, recorded sound and the occasional video image to trace the path of these raped and abused women through our cities, and – most interestingly – to expose the shocking mixture of indifference, hostility and blithering ignorance with which most British people seem to regard them. And where are all the men who buy these women's services? I guess some of them must be sitting amongst the audiences at this year's Fringe; laughing at jokes about how feminism has gone too far, and how a man who wants a decently submissive woman nowadays has no option but to buy one, from a culture where the second sex still know their place.

Free Outgoing until 24 August, tomorrow 4:15pm. Plastic until 24 August, today 8pm and 9:30pm. In A Thousand Pieces until 25 August, today 1:45pm