An electric guitar is roaring, drums are crashing and RashDash’s Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are flying across the stage like lightning in a thunderstorm. They’re emotionally powerful, physically strong and thrilling to watch. And they’re also naked.
It’s hard to believe that when they told their friends and family they were going to be performing parts of the spectacular Two Man Show without clothes, reactions ranged from, “I can’t believe you’re going to do that,” to, “Are you OK?” Two years since La Merda and seven years since Trilogy, a naked woman on a stage is still, apparently, a big deal. So much so that she’s often accompanied by a nudity “warning” on the Fringe and venues’ ticketing websites. But unlike a lot of the semi-clothed performers I saw in 2010 (for a piece I wrote about burlesque), many at this year’s Fringe are doing something genuinely subversive and properly funny.
In Two Man Show, Abbi and Helen affectionately satirise men who can’t communicate with words and celebrate women who use their bodies to create a more powerful kind of language. “We were playing with ideas of physical masculinity and realised that it looks very different performing those physical ideas [partially naked] because we can, sort of, transcend genders,” Helen explains.
Abbi continues: “Undoing that moment when [female] nakedness means shame feels like a really joyful, radical thing to do.” It’s something that Emma Maye Gibson takes to an extreme as her alter-ego, Betty Grumble, “an obscene beauty queen, surreal showgirl and feminist contagion”, in Grumble: Sex Clown Saves The World.
With the brightly painted face of a male drag artist but the body of a fit young woman, her grotesquely funny routines are clearly pushing the boundaries of a group of Aussie men the night I’m watching, who are clinging on to their pints. “I don’t know what’s going on,” one says. “Is it a man or a woman?”
However, afterwards they’re posing for photos with Emma, still naked (apart from two pieces of cardboard), in the Underbelly courtyard. “Often when we see a fleshy woman body, it’s sanitised – presented in a particular way,” Emma tells me: “I’m excited for Betty to be a body that doesn’t fall into that category.”
Lucy McCormick is playing with similar ideas in her new show Lucy McCormick: Triple Threat, in which she creates a retelling of the New Testament, using nudity and explicit imagery to “undermine [gender] as an arbitrary out-dated construct”. She continues: “Women’s bodies are so often offered as purely sexual, it can be a liberation to celebrate the grotesque, the weird and often hilarious functionality of the body. Bodies are funny. They are silly. They are gross.”
Christeene, who defies categorisation as either “man, woman or gollum” and is performing later in the festival at the same venue (in Christeene: Trigger) tells me: “We are given such a thin pamphlet on gender and bodies to look at when are born… I hope to open the minds of these f****** to the entire catalogue and beyond.”
“F*** the patriarchy!” Busty Beatz shouts from the top of a giant, glittering “hive” at the start of Hot Brown Honey, a big, bawdy and bootylicious cabaret show that playfully confronts today’s predominantly white audience with the way black, mixed race and Asian women’s bodies have been sexualised and stereotyped over the years, and sets out to reclaim these images. It’s something that co-creator Busty describes as using “burlesque in its truest sense: satire”.
At times, it’s challenging to watch – particularly for the male audience members who end up being bashed repeatedly around the head by Busty’s ginormous fake breasts. But then “the patriarchy isn’t good for anyone”, she tells me, “Not even straight white men”.
There are, of course, shows featuring male nudity at the Fringe as well. One of these is The Naked Magicians, which, like Hot Brown Honey, unapologetically aims to draw fun-loving audiences in with the promise of naked bodies and then gives them something else as well – in this case, magic.
Co-creator and performer (along with Mike Tyler) Christopher Wayne believes male nudity can also be subversive. “In culture, women are objectified everywhere sexually. So when there’s an opportunity for a man to take that place… it’s a bit more rare,” he says. “Since the dawn of time it’s been the magician’s assistant who has been scantily clad. Now we’re going to be the eye candy.”
Peter Darney, writer/director of 5 Guys Chillin’, is also using the promise of male nudity to market his show, in this instance to attract a gay theatre crowd to a play that, while filled with sexual comedy, also has a serious underlying goal: to promote sexual health. He believes that there are three kinds of nudity in theatre: “sexualised nudity, functional nudity, and nudity that’s the focus, [where a show’s] talking about the body.”
Someone who’s doing plenty of the latter is Emma Mitchell, as Miss Glory Pearl, in Under Cover With The Naked Stand-Up. And yes, she is completely naked.
“I think that not wearing clothes disarms people,” Emma tells me, “what we wear absolutely defines us.” This year, her show is about the way underwear sellers promote the idea that women with smaller breasts need “industrial crash mat padding”, while anyone above a D-cup requires a separate “specialist” store to accommodate their sheer bodily mass. “You can have the appearance of bigger boobs, but you can’t actually have them,” she concludes. “You can’t win, so don’t try. Reject it.”
And she literally has – by choosing to wear nothing instead. A former pole dancer, cabaret and aerial circus performer, she had an accident on stage in 2011 that left her seriously injured. “I can never go back to what I did physically. I put on a lot of weight,” she says. Instead, she reinvented herself as a comedian – one who channels smiling, sparkling sarcasm so successfully, the fact she’s naked soon becomes irrelevant. “You can’t objectify someone who engages you in a conversation,” Emma says. And that, really, is the whole point.
“Comedy is really useful for talking about politics,” says Julia Croft, creator/performer of If There’s Not Dancing At The Revolution, I’m Not Coming. In the kind of surrealist strip show you’ll only find at Summerhall, she pokes fun at the ridiculous ways women are portrayed in films – from Titanic to Basic Instinct – but also celebrates the kitsch sex and romance that makes them so popular in the first place.
“I love comedy,” she says, but one day she’d like to do a piece that’s “really radical, naked and angry. As artists our job is to push these modes of what a woman can be. She doesn’t have to be funny and pretty, she can also be something the complete opposite.”
Playing a “half man, half woman, half beast,” Empress Stah is also redefining cinematic archetypes – ones from Westerns – in her category-defying cabaret-cum-circus show, The Raunch. Created with her husband Graham Sugarlump Power and performed with friends including Fancy Change and My Bad Sister, here the nudity is as surreal or (depending on your perspective) as normal as everything else.
“To be naked is just to be naked,” Stah tells me, “it’s not like, ‘Oh, now I’m taking my clothes off to shock you or make you watch more, to liberate your mind or make you think about something’. It’s just, like, this act requires minimal clothing.”
Another show starting from a perspective that nakedness should be more normalised, but for completely different reasons, is Karen Hobbs: Tumour Has It, which invites audiences to: “Come and laugh at two awkward subjects: vaginas and cancer.” Based on Karen’s own experience of having cervical cancer, it’s told through a series of imaginative scenes that demystify the process of being diagnosed and treated and are underpinned by her wry observations that find humour in the unlikeliest of places.
“It came about to not completely conceal myself because I’m doing a show about cervical cancer, and in the show I talk about the stigma that surrounds having a gynaecological issue,” Hobbs explains. “It felt odd to be saying all of these encouraging messages and not [show] the part of the body I was talking about.”
It also feels odd that on the Fringe ticket bookings website, and many of the venues’ own websites, a “warnings” heading accompanies any mention of nudity or nakedness in shows. It’s as if “contains nudity” or “contains nakedness” aren’t quite strong enough on their own. Adult themes, violent imagery and strobe lighting are all things that some people might have a reason to want to avoid.
But in 2016 do we really still need to be “warned” about women using their bodies to show them in different ways to the mainstream media?
After all, there are still lots of far less interesting images of naked women out there, on TV, in advertising and the tabloid press – and no one “warns” us about them.
Two Man Show is at Northern Stage at Summerhall until 27 August; today 8:15pm. Grumble: Sex Clown Saves The World is at Underbelly, Cowgate until 28 August; tomorrow 8:45pm. Lucy McCormick: Triple Threat is at Underbelly, Cowgate until 28 August; tomorrow 8:10pm. Christeene: Trigger is at Underbelly, Cowgate until 28 August; 17 August 10:10pm. Hot Brown Honey is at Assembly Roxy until 28 August; today 8:20pm. The Naked Magicians is at Pleasance Courtyard until 29 August; today 10:30pm. 5 Guys Chillin’ is at C too until 29 August; today at 11pm.Under Cover With The Naked Stand-up is at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall until 27 August; today 9:10pm. If There’s Not Dancing At The Revolution, I’m Not Coming is at Summerhall until 29 August; today 12:05pm. The Raunch is at Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows until 22 August; today 6:30pm. Karen Hobbs: Tumour Has It is at Underbelly Med Quad until 29 August; today at 2:50pm.