By BRUCE DENNILL
Naked Girls Reading: Out With The Old, In With The Nude / Directed by Alicia Skead / POPArt, Maboneng, Johannesburg
There’s a bit of old-fashoned eyebrow-raising that occurs when the name of this show – though that’s perhaps an inaccurate description; it’s more of a salon-style gathering focused on a panel of performers – is mentioned. And that’s part of the point of the concept: getting audiences to engage with a phenomenon (women being intentionally, comfortably naked in public) that if not as taboo as it used to be on exhibitionist grounds, is generally discouraged for reasons of safety (the women’s, not the audience’s).
There are a few edifying ideas at play with this concept, which has chapters in cities all over the world after being started by two burlesque performers in the US. There is the healthy desexualising of nudity; the encouragement of the notion that you can be nude, and see nude, without needing to assert yourself in a sexual way. There is, via the display of the performers’ bodies – and the inferred acceptance of their differing shapes and qualities – a reassurance for onlookers that their own bodies are worthy of being appreciated too, as is. And the mix of confidence and vulnerability the readers makes the themes of identity, acceptance and value in the excerpts they read resonate more immediately than might otherwise have been the case.
The first Naked Girls Reading instalment for the year at POPArt realised all these ideas. Whatever expectations might be, it is, thanks to the performers’ – Ms Penny Wise, Ms Lola Banks and Ms Silo – ease with their bodies and the context, a strangely lust-free environment. Happily, and importantly, it’s also shame-free – tummy rolls, bruises on shins and all the other flaws we all have accepted. The readers step onto stage in satin dressing gowns, stand in front of their respective seats, drop the gowns and sit, cross-legged. Then, when each is reading, their books are generally held at chest height, largely obscuring whatever else any particularly libidinous audience members might’ve been hoping to see.
The readings change for every performance (or at least every run of shows), chosen by the performers, or in some instances written by them. For this performance, the list of material included a number of blogs, making for a wide variety of perspectives, if not – on some occasions – entries of notable depth. A piece by Russell Brand was the highlight, not least because the comedian, by virtue of his unexpectedly extraordinary intellect, shatters perceptions every bit as effectively as the show of which he has unwittingly become a part.
You’ll leave having been intellectually stimulated more than anything else, and – unless you are entirely unwilling to buy into the piece’s goals – probably more relaxed about nudity as part of performance (and possibly in general) than you might have thought.