Louise Orwin’s latest one-woman show, Oh Yes Oh No, tackles the issue of consent, coercion and female erotic desire in the context of the #MeToo movement.
Following on from success with previous shows such as Pretty Ugly and A Girl and a Gun, Louise Orwin presented a preview of her current project Oh Yes Oh No at the Cambridge Junction before heading off to Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase 2019.
Oh Yes Oh No is the kind of performance that is quickly labelled as bold and dauntless, because it touches on what some might consider a taboo topic. Can female sexual desire counterpoint one’s own politics and the endeavours of feminism? Is it okay to want to be used, to be dominated over in the bedroom, to fantasise about rape? Do such experiences and fantasies diminish the fight for equality and the campaign against female sexualisation – and maybe even one’s own experiences of sexual assault? What does it mean to identify as a woman and fantasise about rape, particularly when having been sexually assaulted before? Oh Yes Oh No doesn’t so much answer such questions, as open them up to the audience and present these issues, which are often ignored in discussions surrounding sexual abuse and sexuality. Built on Orwin’s own experience and extensive research – academic, as well as interviews with women and sexual abuse survivors – Oh Yes Oh No could feel overtly preachy, melodramatic and even aggressive. Yet it doesn’t. Instead it is subtly informative and stays with you long after one has left the theatre. It forces you to reflect on your own actions, thoughts and the very basis from which you form your own opinions.
Orwin takes the stage in a one-woman show that merges visual and audio material, audience interaction, and dance. She addresses the difficult topic of consent and indeed, we are made aware that we can leave the show anytime if we feel uncomfortable. In what can be understood as a critical commentary on how consent is often treated in the media and by society (it seeming to be a mutual agreement, but often consent is coercively and manipulatively gained to the extent that there is never a proper opportunity to say yes or no, leaving one forced into offering a prescribed answer) we, the audience, are made to engage in a dialogue with Orwin. Yes, we are asked for permission, and we gave it – but did we really? The dialogue continues to be read from the screen: Orwin reads her parts aloud and we read out parts in our heads, mostly staying silent. But you are left wondering could we really consent to our participation, to something we didn’t know the true nature of? Could we have revoked our consent?
I believe we could have, but none of us did. I certainly couldn’t identify with the mindset the ‘audience’ was made to take on (I’m not sure if you’re supposed to and if the show would work better if you could?). But isn’t that what it’s really all about? We play along, silently, becoming part of a great game, puppets reading a prescribed text, a prescribed corporal identity where we would rather go along with everyone else than strive against the stream and express our own opinions. During the show, I wondered what would happen if I got up, left or said that I didn’t agree with the ‘audience’ I had previously consented to be part of. How often have we not found the courage to do something, to utter an opinion because we were scared of the consequences and other people’s reactions to it?
Far too often, women have to be hurt and humiliated before they are allowed to gain agency and power…
Another strength of the show is certainly the survivors’ accounts, which are part of the original sound design by Alicia Jane Turner. Raw and real, the female voices talk about the often blurred lines of coercion, consent, and conscientiousness; about what they want, what they are willing to give, and what they (can) get. Moreover, Orwin’s long, melodic monologue, when read from a small TV, enforces such notions. It works on a metaphorical level, because how much freedom is there actually in something prewritten, prescribed? How often do we say something because it has been dictated to us, because we expect it to be said? When the screen was turned to face the audience, we read it simultaneously with Orwin and I considered what it actually says about freedom of speech – and freedom of thought, too.
One sequence in particular lingers on. When a male audience member, clad in rubber gloves, comes on stage, and we get to watch a Barbie and Ken sex role-play, the audience laughs more than once. Yes, it is comical watching rigid plastic dolls being manoeuvred by ‘hands’, played by an audience member and Orwin into sexually explicit positions and movements, with Orwin’s own commentary making it a spectacle. But when the laughter continues and her commentary shifts to narrate a rape (fantasy?), I felt uncomfortable hearing this reaction around me. However, it is all too true. Rape has become a spectacle, a fantasy, a fictional performance we see on TV and read about in novels. In fiction it is frequently used as an actuator for the woman to realise her strength. Far too often, women have to be hurt and humiliated before they are allowed to gain agency and power (Sansa, anyone?). Still, I feel torn about the sequence, whether fantasy or not, although it is certainly original.
A lot can be read into Oh Yes Oh No, but as we see projected on the screen several times during the show, ‘Subjectivity is tiring’. Nevertheless, Oh Yes Oh No itself doesn’t feel tiring and you eagerly await what’s going to happen next, which topic will be addressed and in what way, how and if you’re going to feel uncomfortable or called out. And the show does feel uncomfortable. But can you close your eyes to it and the issues Oh Yes Oh No raises; can you look or walk away? Or would that mean you don’t care; that you don’t see the importance of talking about sexual violence and assault as well as female sexual desire (particularly if it involves being submissive)? How much are we truly giving our consent and when should we take it back? Oh Yes Oh No doesn’t aim at providing answers. Rather, Orwin wants to start a conversation and encourage people to start thinking about the topic. That’s quite an old tale, isn’t it? But then again, would we want a default answer provided, instead of thinking, judging, deciding for our ourselves?
Oh Yes Oh No will be heading to Summerhall for Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase in August 2019, and touring through 2019 and 2020. Find tour dates and more information here.
Feature Image: Louise Orwin’s Oh Yes Oh No. Image courtesy of Field & McGlynn, 2017.