25 October, MTG, HBAF18 By Rosheen FitzGerald
There’re no parks round the MTG so I pull up outside the Wind Sock and walk the block to the theatre. When I return the street’s empty, save for a sextet of dudes shooting shit outside the bar.
“Hey pretty lady, you’re a pretty lady,” grunts one, leaning over the barrier.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” I deadpan my stock response, hoping the sarcasm drips through his inebriated consciousness. I fumble for my keys. I remind myself of the extent of my lung capacity. I am safe. I am strong. I am a survivor.
“Your hair is freaky!” he observes. I find my keys. I thank him for what I’m choosing to take as a compliment. The slam of the car door cuts off their laughter. I release the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. I am safe. I am strong. I am a survivor.
This tiny non-incident is so small, so unremarkable, that, normally, I wouldn’t bother to remark on it. But I’ve just emerged from the immersive, interactive experience that is Jane Doe. This is a piece of theatre that draws lines between a culture in which men are emboldened to objectify women and one in which they feel entitled to sexual gratification regardless of whether the woman is willing, or able, to consent. It uses testimonials, trial transcripts, text messages, media clips, and real-time audience responses.
Such is the toxicity, the divisiveness of this debate, that the phrase ‘rape culture’ is not once uttered in the fifty minutes of stage time. It’s one of a number of nuanced choices made by creator, Eleanor Bishop, that serves to birth a work that sidesteps the polarisation of feminist SJWs versus the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. By keeping the house lights up, making the audience an integral part of the show and giving a variance of scene settings – but bringing it close to home – a conscious effort is made to involve the audience, underlining our shared humanity.
No one says the words ‘trigger warning’ (again, red rag to a bull for some), but we are told it’s ok to be not ok, there’s a safe space on hand for those who need it and in the long, long, run of this show no one has ever lost their life or their marbles. The latter is something that might seem obvious. To a survivor of sexual assault, though, the fear that someone who cares so little for your bodily autonomy could have similar disregard for your right to continued existence gets baked into the body, bursting forth like a jack-in-the-box when the spring’s wound too tight. Under the strain of existing in a world where the conditions of re-traumatisation are woven into the social fabric, the thought that the mind might simply slip loose of its moorings can seem disturbingly close to reality.
Narrator, Karin McCracken, holds the space with integrity and gentle humour. She denies the fourth wall from the first, inviting participation. She softballs us with a seemingly biographical narrative, illustrating how pubescent girls are socialised by romantic movies to accept a sexually subservient role. This not so much segues as crash cuts to a series of text messages that appear to have originated from the Steubenville rape victim, before a number of audience members come onstage to read, as lawyers and witnesses, excerpts from the trial, with McCracken intoning the name – Jane Doe – like a sanctus bell.
No one applauds the volunteers. Such is the discomfort of what we’re being brought to reckon with that theatrical convention is thrown out the window. We no longer know what’s expected of us as an audience. It’s this feeling of discombobulation that creates space for growth, for change. Though disturbing and distressing, the descriptions of sexual assault and violence are far less confronting than in, say, Wild Dogs Under Her Skirt. The intent here is not to provoke outrage, but to provoke thought, to recognise that in a fundamentally unequal society, where penetrative sex is regarded as a pinnacle to conquer, and female sexual pleasure is thought of as an optional extra (if it’s thought of at all) this can’t not be the conclusion.
My only criticism of this approach is that, for some, the lines may not be drawn explicitly enough. Bishop drops markers: the real experiences of harassment, innovatively voiced by McCracken, building a case for a culture that objectifies and devalues women. But she stops short of drawing the circle around the audience members to include us all in that culture, as is evidenced by the content of the audience response, projected for all to see. In the room there is shame, anxiety, disbelief, but a dearth of responsibility. The problem with culture is also its gift: that it’s in all of us, and we are of it.