Wobbly bits on show for more than titters
By Mark Fisher
The Naked Brunch
Sex pulls punters but this year’s crop of naked shows are exposing deeper truths, finds Mark Fisher
AFTER so many millennia of human development, you'd think we'd have come to terms with our own bodies by now. A couple of clothing layers down, each of us is naked, yet one of our greatest taboos is nudity. Despite the inroads of feminism, socialism and humanism, few of us are comfortable in our own skin.
If you doubt it, just look at the way Trilogy was treated in the tabloids last year. Nic Green's Fringe show had a defiantly liberated agenda. She signed up 50 naked dancers and, for the finale, invited the women in the audience to drop their clothes and appear naked on stage. The idea was to reclaim the female body in the name of feminist freedom. One critic said it made "you feel good about all of humanity".
So how did The Sun treat it? By describing the dancers as "brazen amateur strippers" and the show as "erotic" and "saucy". Emily Pankhurst eat your heart out.
It's a similar kind of prurience that fuels much of the marketing for Fringe shows. Theatre companies, just as much as tabloid newspapers, know that sex sells. If you can promise a racy story and a flash of flesh, you might just get your show noticed. Our friends at The Sun have already noted that "the Edinburgh Fringe is at its SEXIEST this year - with a host of saucy shows on offer for randy festival-goers."
One show using the technique on this year's Fringe is Busting Out. This Australian comedy has a professed desire to empower a female audience by making women feel more comfortable about their bodies. In this, it sounds like a populist version of Trilogy and all power to it for that.
At the same time, however, it is selling itself on the Benny Hill-style premise that naked female flesh is something to be sniggered at. The marketing material is all about "knockers", "drooping assets" and "wobbly jokes". If the show is as big a hit here as it was in Australia, it'll be because it understands its audience's hang-ups.
Happily, some performers are prepared to move things beyond smutty schoolboy humour. The Naked Brunch, Naked Splendour and A Surprisingly Tasteful Show About Nudity are three shows that sound as if they are offering the theatrical equivalent of lap dancing, but are actually the opposite. Far from playing to the dirty raincoat crowd, they aim to question our festishisation of flesh.
Philip Herbert dropped his inhibitions 30-odd years ago. He was a drama student and he'd heard they needed life models at the neighbouring further education college. You got GBP1.94 for modelling clothed and GBP1.98 for going naked.
He loved the opportunity of sitting still and being quiet and, despite pursuing a stage career - including playing Julian Clary's sidekick Hugh Jelly - he never gave it up. Now, he has brought the two jobs together in Naked Splendour, in which the audience can sketch him in his birthday suit while he tells tales about his life.
"Normally as a life model, you don't speak unless you're spoken to, but this time, the model does speak," says Herbert. "A lot of my mates are amazed that I work naked. They always say, 'What if you get an erection?' I explain it's a totally non-sexual situation: I'm like a vase of flowers or a piece of antique furniture. I've never been embarrassed about it. For me it's quite natural to get undressed for work. We spend our lives buying clothes and dressing, but really we're all the same. We're told as children to cover up and for the vast majority of people the idea of being naked in a room full of strangers is the most frightening thing in the world. For me, it feels quite natural." To write A Surprisingly Tasteful Show About Nudity, comedian Alexis Dubus has undertaken months of research, including a visit to a naturist camp ("I came out with a new-found love of pockets") and a survey of nearly 200 people. Having investigated the shock value of rude words in 2008's A R#ddy Brief History of Swearing, he wanted to examine why nudity is such a taboo, not least because he likes to keep his clothes on himself.
"I've always been interested in taboos and why they are still shocking," says Dubus, promising "no penal contortions" during the performance. "I've done a few shows out in Australia, so it's interesting to get the different reactions of the supposedly prudish Brits and the supposedly happy-go-lucky Australians - who are actually a lot more conservative."
With illustrations at the ready, Dubus takes us from Lady Godiva to Stephen Gough, aka the naked rambler, and considers our contrasting attitudes to male and female nudity. "The show debates whether we can see nudity as a pure and natural thing with all the media coverage that sexualises it," he says. "The conclusion I've come to is that nudity, like swearing, is great in the right context; not something we should necessarily be doing all the time. There's something to be said for seeing normal naked bodies on a regular basis for body-consciousness to be less of an issue."
As we all know, nudity is an addictive drug and once you've been weaned onto it by Dubus and hooked by Herbert, you'll be craving some of the hard stuff. That's when you'll need a fix of The Naked Brunch in which not only the performers but also the audience appear as nature intended. "Nudity non-negotiable" warns the Fringe programme.
The event's creator, Natalie Bak, says she wanted to understand her own discomfort with nakedness. "A lot of people might misinterpret this and think I'm a naturist, but I'm quite the opposite," she says. "I like to challenge myself and confront my own fears. The show has given me a lot more confidence and self-acceptance."
The two performances feature a mixed bill by musicians, circus entertainers and visual artists who have accepted Bak's challenge to do what they normally do, except with no clothes on. "It's all about celebrating the creative process," says Bak. "It's the double exposure involved in first making good work, so you have to strip back, delve in and get to the good stuff that's buried deep down, then you have to share it, which means you have to expose yourself again. It's celebrating artists being the brave and bold people they are and to involve audiences in that process: that's why the audience is asked to be naked."
Her experience doing the show in Melbourne is that audiences make more eye contact out of respect for each other and find themselves connecting on a deeper level. "It strips the mask away," she says. "You realise we are all human and made up of the same stuff."
If you are still intimidated, however, Bak offers one concession. With her background in costume making, she accepts the need to accessorise. "Bring your hats and your gloves - it makes it even funnier," she says. "It's a pretty good deal: not only do you get a performance, you get fed and you have this mind-blowing experience where you get to confront yourself and have a laugh."
• The Naked Brunch is at C Central, 11am, 22 August, A Surprisingly Tasteful Show About Nudity is Downstairs at the Tron, 5pm, until 30 August; Naked Splendour is at C Central, 3:10pm, until 30 August: Busting Out is at Assembly @ George Street, 6:50pm until 30 August.