Observer/Burgess Prize shortlist - Ventriloquy of the Body Electric

Posted on Feb 28th 2015

The following piece was shortlisted for the 2014  Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism 

Ventriloquy of the Body Electric: Adrienne Truscott

Nudity in live performance, in these chilly British Isles, often deploys the imprimatur of a star name hitched to a worthy script to justify a spot of West End voyeurism. Daniel Radcliffe as the tortured horse-blinding naturist in Equus offers a tidy example, while Nicole Kidman’s ‘theatrical Viagra’ turn in The Blue Room some years back illustrates the point in extremis. On the global comedy circuit, however, baring all would seem to be a simple Carry On-style conduit for unexamined entertainment; but it tends to depend on the gender of the genitalia. Just ask American performance artist Adrienne Truscott – if you can bring your eyes up to her face for long enough.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It – A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy And Little Else! is an outlier stage show that strutted away with some serious critical kudos at the Edinburgh Fringe, (including snaffling the Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Award Panel Prize), before a run at London’s Soho Theatre. January 2015 saw Truscott visiting the Sydney Festival, and her Antipodean stint brings to mind another outré theatrical outing from the region, the self-explanatory Puppetry of the Penis, with which some revealing comparisons may be made. (All Down Under puns to be vigorously eschewed at this point, to avoid turning into an unwitting homage to The Inbetweeners.)

It is so long since two Australian comedians first brought their ‘ancient art of genital origami’ to the attentions of a double-taking world – sixteen years in fact, approximately the age of those most likely to ROFL it – that in addition to an exhaustive global touring platform the show now exists as a franchise. From the website ‘Auditions’ page: ‘Puppetry of the Penis and Puppetry Private Parties are looking for blokes with a total lack of shame to perform both locally and overseas.’  (By the way, does the British performer exist who could claim such a definitively Australian ‘total lack of shame’? Particularly in light of the caveat, ‘Strictly a laughs-only show! Show is non-sexual.’  For those expecting a mash up of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Muppet Movie, this is bound to be a let down.)

The same ‘laughs-only’ agenda cannot in all honesty be applied to Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It, although it offers no shortage of wicked wit and startling slapstick. Whether Truscott would assert (like those perky Penis Puppeteers) that her theatrical stand-up performance is ‘non-sexual’ is apposite in the extreme: the circus-trained artist fronts the entire show naked from the waist down, delivering a kind of Ventriloquy of the Vulva, as it were. Truscott offers an entirely different set of (literal) projections onto the female body from those more generally – some might say relentlessly – fostered by our culture. And don’t let her bimbo demeanour, the long blonde wig and giggling inebriation, mislead. Far from being all mouth and no trousers, Truscott here reinvents ‘Get your tits out for the lads’ as ‘Get-your-vadge-out-and-make-it-menace-everybody-à-la-Robert-De-Niro-in-Taxi-Driver’. For the lads.

Forget the vagina dentata, the vagina hirsuta is the squealingly terrifying prospect in this plastic, pubeless porn era. Asking For It is a hair-curlingly glorious, full frontal engagement with the rise in popularity of rape jokes in stand-up. The subtitle for the show, A One-Lady Rape About Comedy, directs you to the linguistic switch around as a statement of ferociously playful theatrical intent. Anyone who stands on her head to transform her Brazilian into Travis Bickle’s mohawk, with the aid of video projection onto her torso – ‘You talkin’ to me?’ – throws down a challenge to the comedy status quo that leaves the Penis Puppeteers’ pièce de résistance, the Hamburger, looking, dare I say, like so much chopped liver.

‘I sing the body electric, /The armies of those I love… /They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them/And discorrupt them…’ Truscott’s fellow statesider Walt Whitman, pouring forth his ecstatic lines from Leaves of Grass, did not in all probability have in mind a woman onstage in a hot pink bra and denim jacket, swigging beer from a six-pack, with her pudenda taking the air. Yet there is no denying that Truscott’s ‘body electric’ brings an explosive frisson to the theatre that leaves your bog standard, fourth wall, naturalistic nudism sagging like a cardboard cutout in a steam room. How can one woman’s body set off such a charge, in this era of YouPorn, naked selfies of movie stars, and where pole dancing is practically a badge you can earn at Brownies? Is it the gleeful rejection of the notion of vulnerability – the refusal to be boxed into that crowded corner – that transforms her nakedness into a ‘discorrupting’ creative force?

Just as musicians no longer make money from recordings while the increasing demand for live tickets impels insane extremes of expenditure – when even Kate Bush is forced out of her hermitage you know times are a-changing – so it is that one real woman talking to an audience without her pants on can still undeniably galvanise a room. U2 can’t even give their albums away anymore without people complaining bitterly, while Asking For It sells out; but only in terms of the capacity audiences.

Not content to simply challenge the questionable cultural currency of rape repartee (rape-artee?), Truscott makes good on Whitman’s electric paean by reclaiming her own body in the process as hers to damn well do with as she pleases, onstage as anywhere else. Outrageous physical stunts assert this performer is in charge of her own anatomy, whatever the circumstances, whatever the attire. She is no more ‘asking for it’, she insists, than the women of Iran and India, for whom enforced modesty of dress is no protection against the realities of assault.

And why are they there, the other ‘electric’ bodies, the audience? One online commentator was as blunt as the show’s title: ‘Anyone seen her? Fanny just a gimmick to make up for not being very good?’ Ah yes, the gimmick-fanny as a drawing card because, let’s face it, a woman onstage always needs a gimmick. And what better than her own muff, to be whipped out when the laffs stop coming? Truscott is unafraid to speculate on our incentives for attending, especially with regard to those men who arrive solo and sit front row. Quizzing the crowd as to whether there are any rapists in the house puts an uncomfortable spin on the clichés of warm-up banter. (‘Anyone in from Stoke?’) And if punters of spurious artistic motivation are not the prime audience for a show about challenging attitudes to sexual violence, then who is? One of Truscott’s most sublime angles is the insinuation of her performance into contentious frontline territories. The price of a ticket is undoubtedly cheaper than that of a lap dancing club, no beefy bouncer forces you to buy extortionately-priced drinks, and the script is bound to be more stimulating. For what is lap dancing other than the world’s most formulaic live theatre? Like reading the spoilers for Corrie before tuning in: you always know what you’re going to get.

Truscott’s website claims of her work that ‘increasingly live performance strikes her as the most radical way to re-engage people's attention—not just socially or politically, but personally, aesthetically, energetically; the most available way to trigger the act of paying attention.’ Pay attention we surely do, and not just because of that gimmicky fanny. Adrienne Truscott exposes her brains even more than her bits, sarcastically reframing outrage at a rogues’ gallery of rape-joke offenders until humiliation is turned as a mirror on itself. Addressing the notorious ad lib by US comic Daniel Tosh – who said of a heckler ‘Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by five guys right now?’ – Truscott riffs an excoriating sequence calling out Tosh and his comedic cohorts, who duck behind the right to free speech, for above all a lack of wit. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if those guys realized they, like, had the right to say something funny?

Not wanting to divulge all of the show’s bests – because hey, even a thong-less thespian should be allowed to keep a little mystery – I will simply give a nod to cereal rape (via a bowl of cornflakes), uses of Rohypnol, a meta striptease (how many bras can one woman remove? How many layers of projection can women’s bodies accrue?); and the central object of derision, the rape whistle, which the audience are offered the use of should it all become overpowering and we need to tell her to stop.

This woman is more than fearless, she’s fearlessly hilarious, interrogating live performance until it squeals. She’s the right kind of scream. In an age when Twitter trolls lurk in ever-murkier virtual shadows, emboldening themselves with comedy’s celebration of denigration, the only thing Adrienne Truscott is ‘asking for’ is a brightly-lit arena in which she can put those exhausted toxic comedy tropes, once and for all, safely to bed. 

RH 2014

1 Comment

Sheridan Quigley
Mar 02nd 2015

What a brilliantly tantalising introduction to a performer I've never come across. What I like most about this review is that it achieves what a good review always should - making the reader kick themselves for what they have missed (thereby putting them on the lookout for future performances) but without attempting to substitute for the experience of being there. The standard model is to reveal the entire narrative together with a op-ed telling us what to think about it, obviating the need/desire to connect with the primary experience. I'm thoroughly sick of pre-digested culture. Permission to engage my own critical faculties, please! Thanks for a fresher breeze.

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