Theatre Review: Sirens @ Tobacco Factory Theatres
by Polly Hember

"We are the weaker sex. We can’t control our feelings; crying, sulking and suffering inexplicable mood-swings. We are either whores or saints. We’re good liars, using our bodies to get on in life. We’re sirens. The stage is ours."

Brave, vivid and brutal – Ontroerend Goed explore what it means to be a modern-day feminist. Performing Sirens at Tobacco Factory Theatres for the very last time, this is a significant piece in contemporary feminist discourse which explores issues surrounding representation, everyday sexism, the beauty industry, female friendships, rape and modern relationships with great conviction and brilliantly sharp wit.

Dressed in formal evening dresses, the six women on stage look as if they might be singing in an opera, with a music sheet stand in front of them as they assemble. The noise that overwhelmed Tobacco Factory Theatres was not operatic, not melodic nor even fully formed words. An abject conglomeration of mumbles, half-words, animal noises, vocal exercises, shouts, wails, yelps and moans of distress exploded on stage. A shock to the system that was as funny as it was jarring, superbly subverting the preconceptions of how women dressed in ballgowns, high heels and lipstick should sound. Murky images of hard pornography were projected onto the screen behind the women, who adopted over-the-top seductive poses which become increasingly hilarious as they fall onto the floor, squat and teeter in their exaggerations. Next, they deliver mock handjobs. The audience’s nervous laughter becomes side-splitting belly laughs.

From the absurd hilarity of the opening sketches, the anti-narrative moves forward – seemingly propelled by rhythm and voice. A jarring cascade of famous women’s voices are offered, to be immediately shot down by another member: Victoria Beckham? I hate her. Natalie Portman? Skank. Mother Teresa? Skank. Interrogating how women’s relationships with other women function in our modern day society, so often wreaked with judgement and negativity, the viciously contradictory call and response was provocative and brave.

A recital of women’s beauty products followed by the price, “Mac Lipstick, Red, £16.50”, “Keil’s, Midnight Recovery Concentrate, for dry and dehydrated skin, £38”, “YSL, Red Lipstick, Stolen”, spoken over and overlapping one another created a symphony of absurdity and consumerism as the total money spent on these products easily surpassing thousands of pounds in just five minutes of the performed piece. The unease of which I recognised most of the beauty products (either having owned or desired them at some point) struck me as ludicrous in this fantastic excursion into the beauty industry and its destructive polemics.

A shocking string of misogynistic oneliners read by aloud one woman was especially uncomfortable. “What do you call the excess flesh around a vagina? A Woman.”, and so forth.

These were met at the start with a couple of laughs at the ridiculous chauvinism on display, but as the deluge of misogyny went on the audience was cast into appalled silence. Unflinching, brave and clever, Sirens confronts the everyday sexism that undercuts everyday life as a woman living in the 21st century. So often misogyny or sexism is excused or glossed over when it masquerades as a joke. With such a painful monologue, Sirens actively confronts this and does not allow it to be laughed off or cast aside.

In another monologue, the fear of rape was actively discussed, which again resonated painfully with myself as the women discussed the fear of walking home late at night, constantly feeling each presence behind herself as an attacker; the way we put our headphones on but never play music so we can be aware of our surrounds at all times, the way we grip our handbag like a weapon, the way we cross the street if we feel someone walking behind us; the way we may happily accept strangers buying us drinks at bars but warily never let the drink out of eyeshot encase rohypnol finds its way into the glass.

The final monologue was perhaps the most emotive and urgent; the women formed a small semi-circle for actor Charlotte De Bruyne to enter to list all the things she wanted. 

It started off as if she was addressing a male partner; a contrived list of desires that pandered to male sexual fantasies, “I want you to choke me”, but as it progressed, the focal point turned away from pleasing others and twisted inwards to what women as individuals want, “I want to stop feeling good when someone tells me I’ve lost weight”, exposing the tensions between public and private emotions, reality and representation of gender and navigating modern society as “the other”, it ended triumphantly with I want to be “my own woman”. De Bruyne was phenomenal and compelling, ending with a scream that harked back to the opening cries. However this scream was much more urgent and carried much more meaning, it seemed to encapsulate the entire performance – all the passion and all the pain – of being a woman.

This experimental and unconventional performance was unflinching, brave, wild and brilliant. The humour was woven tight into the truisms that Sirens confronted, presenting a hilarious, painful and significant piece of theatre that sees modern women asking what feminism means. The title could not be more apt; from the modern day emergency sirens, which are a call to arms, signalling distress but also a rush of help and support, to the Sirens of Ancient Greece who seduce sailors with beautiful voices to shipwreck them - the screams of Ontroerend Goed confront the difficulties of navigating the turbulent waters of modern feminism in hopes of shipwrecking misogyny and providing a lifeboat for feminists, men and women alike.

 

A triumphant and important piece, sing on Sirens.

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