There have in recent years been a number of shows that have addressed the male gaze and the objectification of women. However, none illustrates the ramifications of this quite so powerfully as Foreign Body. Written and performed by Imogen Butler-Cole (with direction by Fran Moulds), Foreign Body is a piece of physical theatre that is both personal and universal.
Surrounded by full length mirrors, Butler-Cole stands in the centre with nothing but a wooden chair. Accompanied by pre-recorded dialogue – sometimes spoken by her, sometimes by other women – Butler-Cole moves around with the chair in different positions, which over the course of the show represents many different things. An extension of herself, a burden she can’t relinquish… The accounts of Butler-Cole and the women who contributed give subliminal meaning to the actions on stage. Eventually though, the penny drops – all the women are referring to their own experiences of being sexually assaulted.
The details vary, ranging from waking up to find someone else’s fingers intruding ‘inside’ to being raped by more than one person over a number of hours. Understandably, in that particular testimony, the woman recalls that at the time she wished she were dead so her suffering would end. As traumatic as this is, Foreign Body on one level doesn’t distinguish between ‘mild’ and ‘severe’ examples of assault. In all the cases, consent wasn’t given at all. All the women were violated.
One of the things that makes the show so powerful is the ‘incidents’ were all spoken by women they happened to, not actors. There are some examples that are near-impossible to fabricate without direct experience and listening to them played, one senses this is the ‘real deal’.
If Foreign Body was purely about how widely sexual assaults take place, it would still be a worthy – if harrowing – show. However, Foreign Body does more than ‘regurgitate’ the past. One of the major themes it explores is the acknowledgement (or lack of…) by men that have ‘crossed the line’. So often, even under ‘benign’ circumstances, a woman’s intitial “No” is not taken at face value, with the men persisting with their advances until ‘permission is given’. In today’s society, it is expected for men to ‘take the initiative’ and ‘pursue’ the women who are of interest to them. Without the importance of consensual sex to guide them, “No” isn’t an unequivocal, absolute rejection of their advances, but seen as a ‘negotation tactic’, where “No” equals “Yes”, though maybe not just yet…
One of the astounding things in the show is the testimony of one of the men who was ‘manually intrusive’. Conveying very real shame and emotion in his voice, the man in question has realised, years later in the cold light of day, how his own ‘friskiness’ after a few drinks was inexcusable. The timbre of his voice reveals that this epiphany scares him, frightenened of what he’s capable of. But this is the thing – Foreign Body isn’t about ‘man-hating’ or portraying all men as monsters. Indeed, Foreign Body raises the point about subsequent relationships with men and the possibility of healing and trust from sensitive partners.
Of course for many, healing takes time – if it comes at all – and reminds us that for the women who been through these ordeals, the psychological scars are far-reaching. Asides from the immediate distress ‘the incidents’ engender, ‘flashbacks’ occur when least expected and women can develop an ambivalence towards their own bodies. There may also be a conscious demarcation in their minds between their exterior and interior selves.
All these details are alluded to in the show, but instead of labouring each point, the use of Butler-Cole’s physical movement in conjunction with the dialogue deftly conveys more than words alone. For the duration of the show, the actions on stage – either literally or metaphorically – mirror the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and as such, the audience intuitively tunes into what’s expressed by Butler-Cole’s body language.
The show is continually evolving and certainly since the last time I saw Foreign Body, the use of the chair, mirrors and other testimonies have really contributed the scale and the scope of the issues covered. It goes without saying that Butler-Cole’s courage and tenacity with the development of this show can’t be understated, able to reflect on one of the worst of all experiences and use it to engender catharsis, healing and forgiveness.
© Michael Davis 2017
Foreign Body runs at Soho Theatre from 16th-18th August (7pm), followed by a Q&A discussion.