Originally written for Exeunt
“It’s performance art, you’re going to see a lot of that.” (She may have said twat. Or cunt. Or any other of the dizzying array of euphemisms that spin deliriously past you in Sex Idiot, so varied and remarkable that they later led to an etymological discussion in our flat.) Bryony Kimmings is relaying a conversation with an ex-boyfriend, explaining why he and an audience of people had just seen the subject of ‘The Fanny Song’ in her latest show and why she didn’t plan for that to change in the future.
Having (somewhat accidentally) seen two shows purportedly about sex and its consequences in the past week, the markedly different ways in which we use performance to frame, tackle and dance around physical intimacy and in which we hide and expose ourselves while doing so have stayed with me.
Sex Idiot sees Kimmings revisit her previous sexual encounters when diagnosed with an STI, while Jezebel is the story of a young woman who is hapless in love yet finds herself involved in a threesome. But while Kimmings passes around scissors and Jack Daniels at the Southbank Centre and waits for audience members to rummage around in their underwear (the now infamous pube moustache – a gently encouraged but very real level of intimacy), the cast of Mark Cantan’s Jezebel at Soho Theatre are capering around but never quite landing on it.
Both pieces prod at the way in which we establish intimacy; Mark Cantan’s script gently jibes at the ridiculousness of dating as its couple, Robin and Alan, interrogate each other; about the random qualities that form questions on dating sites and that we tell ourselves are important when sizing up a potential partner. But do you have pets? Religion? Do you like mushrooms? Do you smoke? Kimmings opts for an all-out bird mating ritual, affecting both because and in spite of its not being a world away from exhibitions at 1am on the dance floor.
Yet where she ploughs straight in to talk about the joys, the frustrations and the realities of sex, Cantan – interviewed here – sidesteps it with statistics and humour. It’s refreshing to see relationships mined for some of their inherent comedy – the use of maths and the idea of pausing foreplay to check your email are wryly demonstrative of so many of the barriers to intimacy that we construct – but something about the piece falls just short. The devices of farce somewhat overstay their welcome and by the time the characters have all misunderstood each other yet again, and Jezebel has continued to chew her hair and look unnervingly childlike and wide eyed, it is difficult not to feel divorced from the consequences of their one night stand as all of the characters remain… well, farcical. It turns out that sex without heart, without people in whom you are invested, makes for less interesting theatre.
Kimmings’ journey through her sexual history is altogether warmer, and cannot help being instantly funny because it is so immediately personal. Because you know what’s unexpectedly endearing? Hearing someone talk about falling in love while decanting pubes into a small jar. It is our complicity in the performance that renders it so effective – where Jezebel is all a bit vanilla and awkward even with itself, Sex Idiot is raw, raucous, funny and oddly comfortable. Kimmings’ ownership of her body as a performer feels so complete that, although she wriggles in and out of costumes on stage and discloses the most personal details about her health and relationships, it feels like she’s made a powerful choice in what she does and doesn’t reveal; a vessel for her story but never subsumed or subdued by it. In a reversal of the usual theatrical contract, we as audience are instead asked to give something of ourselves.
Perhaps most interestingly, both productions set out to talk about sex, and end up talking about love. Ending on a note of hopeful fulfillment, Jezebel concludes that even accidents can turn out well, and though the process of both watching and existing in the play is somewhat frustratingly cyclical, maybe letting go every now and again is a way to let a little positivity in. From talking to us duck-like through a speculum, to the slow realisation that it wasn’t physical damage she had been causing in her previous relationships,Sex Idiot as a whole feels a bit like growing up; like an introduction to your thirties that’s honest and just a lovely bit weird. Where kisses fall like punches and sex is best described through interpretive dance, Kimmings instead winds to a much quieter close; the once flowery Troubador covering herself with the relationship detritus that has accumulated on stage. After a journey that has felt mostly about letting go, this feels like painfully, joyously taking control.