I wish there was a way I could start this review by saying that Louise Orwin’s new solo show is ‘brave’ without sounding false – applied to women, ‘brave’ has this patronising womens’ magazine ring to it, like you’re describing someone who’s wearing suede trousers to a kids’ birthday party, or risking a military fitness session on a hangover.
But brave is definitely the word to describe it – it’s got a radical, transformative honesty to it that goes quite a long way beyond the show’s perky poster tagline, which describes it as ‘a show about asking for what you want’.
Louise Orwin opens her performance by explaining that it’s a place where you can play freely, and explore your desires with no judgement. It’s a similar kind of language to Chris Goode’s project, Ponyboy Curtis, where queer young men create a kind of temporary sexual utopia on stage. But Orwin’s freedom is of a darker kind – perhaps inevitably.
Because what her work shows is how gendered sexual freedom is, and how feminist politics won’t go away, no matter how hard you try to banish them. In the show’s opening moments, Orwin invites a female audience member on stage to ‘play’ with plastic dolls on a tiny, fake grass-covered plinth. She’s Ken, Orwin is Barbie. But even in this tiny, cutesy arena, things start to feel uncomfortable quickly – the audience member makes Ken’s tiny plastic hands jab at Barbie’s passive pink body. And this interaction is darkened by a series of recorded conversations where women talk about their experiences of violation and sexual assault, collected by Orwin as part of a series of workshops she ran while preparing for the performance.
What follows is an exploration of how ideas of femininity, sexual passivity, and vulnerability go hand in hand with rape culture. Orwin’s performance confronts these ideas of gendered weakness with strength – she’s femme and bold down to the last eyeliner flick. And where so often live artists making personal work break themselves down on stage – through shedding clothes, inhibitions, tears – she never lets her guard down, or surrenders herself to the audience.
Every move she makes towards talking more openly about her desires raises endless questions. Does being sexually submissive also perpetuate rape culture? Can an act be empowering for one woman, but damaging to womankind as a whole? Is a desire ever your own, or is it a product of a vast, flawed, sexist media culture complex?
What Oh Yes, Oh No doesn’t have is answers – it’s not that kind of performance. I felt a bit frustrated by Orwin’s (very provisional) conclusion that women need to talk about it more. However valuable workshops where women talk to women undoubtedly are, this something that’s on men, too.
But this frustration definitely didn’t diminish the show’s uncomfortable power, or the impact of the whole muddied mess of feelings it stirs up. Because this is personal: something that affects everyone, of every gender and sexuality, somewhere along an invisible line from gendered expectations of sexual behaviour through to rape culture. Successive waves of feminism have turned sexuality into a battleground (often focused around the flashpoints of sex work and pornography) because the personal is political, and this stuff is hard.
Orwin’s performance treads a cool, assured path through a debate that’s so heated it’s basically torn apart feminism. As her work shows, being totally cheerleader-positive about sex in all its forms is impossible in a flawed, structurally sexist society. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – and Louise Orwin’s show is awe-inspiring for its optimism, for the sight it offers of someone trying to do something honest and uncomplicatedly brave in a broken system.