For me, great political theatre is that which challenges taboo. It gives voice to the unheard and ignored, bringing to light the parts of our society that are often left in the dark because they disrupt our sensibilities of what is to be a moral society. Morality is a huge concern within human cultures – what is deemed good (moral) and what is deemed bad (immoral) by a culture has shaped the lives of people across countless societies and innumerable generations. Indeed, our views around morality have changed throughout the centuries, but there is a certain strata of society that has always been a trigger point with regards to morality across numerous different cultures, and it is that of sex work. Sex, in and of itself, is a morally taboo subject for many, but as soon as monetary exchange is brought into the mix, it is like a red rag to the bull of cultural debate. The centuries old debates around sex work bring with it telling discussions about the treatment of women, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, human rights and our relationship with sexuality. It is a heady subject to dive into, but it is a subject that Process Theatre examine with nuance and care in their show, Things We Do Not Know.
Devised and developed by this female and non-binary led group, Things We Do Not Know is a semi-verbatim, semi-multimedia piece that explores the lives of female street sex workers in Bristol and the work of Bristol based charity, One25. Through live monologues performed by Ciara Flint, Keziah Spaine, Erica Flint and Ellie Buckingham, recorded interviews and a capella choral singing, we are offered glimpses into the lives of Petra, Kay, Claire, Zara, Nina and Sam. These are real stories, told in the words of the women who lived them. The stark reality of their lives, so often shaped by drugs, addiction and abuse, is brought to life in the black box space of Camden People’s Theatre, transforming the performance area into a gallery of information, statistics, names and verbatim quotes from the women and the charity that this show investigates. It is a piece that blends theatre and performance art into a multi-layered and textured creation that is both beautiful and provocative.
I must admit, I was nervous to see how this piece would handle it’s complex subject matter. Sex work is so often vilified, even by those who consider themselves to be staunch advocates for women’s and human rights. Sex workers are dehumanised or reduced to one dimensional victims whereby the bodily and monetary transactions they engage in are, in and of themselves, inherently evil. Yet, Process Theatre does not fall into this reductive narrative trap, and indeed this is down to the verbatim storytelling that drives the heart of the show. By centring the real stories of sex workers, the true villains of their lives – loneliness, abuse by male partners or family members, mental ill health and substance abuse – are brought to the fore. These women are allowed the humanity they are so often denied, and it is clear that it is not the sex work itself that is truly evil, but the misogyny, sexism and classism that pervades our society. Dramaturg Davina Chao does an excellent job in composing the various narrative strands, weaving an intricate snapshot into this unheard section of Bristolian society. The power of the performers shines throughout, with each monologue delivered with painstaking precision, and the clever use of familiar pop, rock and blues songs highlight the sexist echo chamber our society exists within. This is, at times, a difficult show to watch. It deals with difficult and upsetting subject matter that will be triggering to many, but it is, in my view, an essential creative documentation of women sex workers in the post-COVID 21st Century.