XXX

La Fura Dels Baus

Riverside Studios

(2003)

Review by Jackie Fletcher

This latest piece from the ever controversial La Fura Dels Baus is a modern adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's 1795 novel Philosophy of the Bedroom and it has had tabloid hacks frothing at the mouth. It is difficult to see what all the kerfuffle has been about: this is really a witty, technically innovative and artistically sophisticated version of Eurotrash for cultured viewers capable of thinking about sexual mores while tittering at the same time. There are too many distancing devices built into its structure, reminding one that this is theatre, for it to be taken seriously as porn. It is replete with irony, parody and a good deal of humour, such as the talking penis who wants to 'fuck' his way to celebrity status. Images projected onto the large screen split the focus and detract from sexual simulations on stage, and even graphic close-ups of penetration, cunnilingus and fellatio are edited in such a rapid MTV video-clip fashion that it is difficult to focus on one image long enough to provoke a sustained arousal. This is a multimedia, postmodern romp that raises some serious questions about fantasies, inhibitions and impinging societal norms.

I rather enjoyed the show: it was fresh fare, virgin territory on the London stage, often funny, and pleasingly thought-provoking. The actors must be applauded for their willingness to push at boundaries and expose themselves. Visually, it was as aesthetically invigorating as anything the company has done in the past and the pacing was confidently executed to manipulate the audience's responses.

Nonetheless, I do feel that the concept is based on an error made by many in assuming that De Sade was, and remains, the natural opponent of the Enlightenment ratiocination that has fuelled sexual repression and a vulgarisation of all bodily functions. This polarity is a simplification. De Sade was a complex personality, wrapped up in the politics of his own age, and exhibiting a strong streak of misogyny. The porn-queen Madame (confidently played by Teresa Vallejo) and the innocent and unwilling pupil are familiar female stereotypes in De Sade's work, recognisable as sisters Juliette and Justine: the former using her physical charms as a prostitute ends up marrying an aristocrat and the latter, intent on remaining pure, is raped, abused, beaten and humiliated, only to be struck by lightening and killed after her rescue from this torment.

De Sade's assertion that pain liberates and opens the senses to pleasure is surely disputable and the on-stage rape and humiliation of Eugénie, justified on the grounds that she was a good pupil and was really gagging for it, that she would return for more, which indeed she does, was distasteful, especially as actress Sonia Segura gave such a convincing display of distress. This is dicey territory: there are some fantasies that should remain in the realms of the imagination. The rape and punishment of the mother was a typical piece of sadism that can hardly be exonerated on the excuse that mothers collude with their oppressors in passing on sexual repression to the next generation. Moreover, the female characters spend more of the performance naked and eroticised than the males, which even the context cannot detract from the fetishisation of the female body. Alternatively, the women are beautiful and the males sleazy pornbrokers.

In spite of this, the central message of XXX, pronounced explicitly at the beginning, is that life is too short and we only live once. This is an overtly erotic carpe diem: seize the time. Perhaps, if we were to put the production into its initial Spanish context, we would find cultural and aesthetic impulses that might add to the debate. Spanish culture has burgeoned since the demise of Franco and decades of a repressive regime. It has become daring, flamboyant and artistically innovative. And maybe XXX is merely giving voice in 21st century mode to material dealt with more carefully seventy years ago by Lorca in The House of Bernada Alba: sexual repression through Catholic guilt for the maintenance of the established status quo.

There is plenty of food for thought and debate here and the production is so dazzling I'm heartily glad it has made an appearance on a London stage. In its capacity to provoke controversy it is probably one of the most exciting events for years. It is just such a pity that Mary Whitehouse is too dead to throw a knee-jerk fit and get the show even more sustained publicity.

"XXX" runs until 17th May. Adults only!