"Sensitive and emotionally gripping" - Things We Do Not Know

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By Carina Murphy, third year English

Carina Murphy reviews a self-proclaimed 'exploration of female street sex workers', produced in collaboration with Bristol based charity One25 which works to free women from violence, poverty and addiction.

Verbatim theatre supposedly fills us in – it’s based off facts not fiction, it documents rather than embellishes, and it testifies instead of mystifies. But Process Theatre’s Things We Do Not Know makes no such pretence to authority. Everything from its title down rejects a monopoly on knowledge, and encourages its audience to question their own prejudices and assumptions about its contentious subject, sex work.

Things We Do Not Know began development two years ago; after three successful runs around Bristol, it’s been redeveloped and returned to the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC). A self-proclaimed exploration of female street sex workers, the piece is produced in collaboration with Bristol based charity One25, which works to free women from violence, poverty and addiction. One25 leaves a large footprint on the performance, but only because they have also left one on many sex workers' lives – their testimonies abound with gratitude for the charity’s work.

"everything from its title down rejects a monopoly on knowledge, and encourages its audience to question their own prejudices and assumptions"

Bringing the audience stories that are often difficult to hear is accomplished with both dramatic force and sensitivity. From the opening reminder we are about to hear true stories, to the audio recordings that often take over from actors, the piece never allows theatre to eclipse hard truth, or us to forget this. Before taking to the stage actors spray paint the names of the women whose mouthpiece they are about to assume – they are well aware of their surrogacy, and respectfully keen to be inscribing someone else’s story into the dramatic space rather than their own talent. There is no self-aggrandizing bowing out for these performers – they prefer to punctuate the end of their play by once again putting themselves in the background and washing audience members' hands. It makes for thought-provoking theatre which leaves us reflecting on its subject matter more than it does its artistry.

This is not to say it has none – contrarily, the whole piece is carefully choreographed, sensitively acted and emotionally gripping. Testimonies are bookended by eerie vocals as the cast break into harmonised renditions of popular songs – ‘Kiss With a Fist’ and ‘Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon’ are particularly memorable. Meanwhile, warm red stage lighting cools through shades of violet into an icy blue and then wanders back up the spectrum, shadowing the testimonies' descent from troubled childhood to violent adolescence, sex work, addiction, and eventual recovery. Such immersive staging brings the audience along on the journey and allows them to experience the force of One25’s work, when having their hands washed parallels a cleansing from drugs, violence, and emotional abuse.

"bringing the audience stories that are often difficult to hear is accomplished with both dramatic force and sensitivity"

The beautifully expressive dance sequences are highlights, as is the (often hilarious) opening dramatization of a Reddit forum. But perhaps the most powerful thing about this production, or at least what will stay with me, is the way it questions our own proximity to sex work. If asked if they would sell themselves for money most people might respond flippantly as the performers start out by doing, with crowd pleasers like ‘If Colin Firth as Mr Darcy was my only client’. However, jokes quickly grade into the real: ‘If I had no choice’. At the end of the performance a volunteer from One25 was invited to speak; she took advantage of the platform to remind us that around this time, just streets away, women trapped by poverty and addiction were going out to sell sex. By demonstrating how easily then can slip into such circumstances, Things We Do Not Know reminds us that we are no further from them than this geography suggests.

★★★★

(Featured image: Ciara Flint/ Davina Chao/Cassandre Puget)


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