Eleven sex workers walk into a bar…well, there may not be a bar in See Me Now, but there are eleven sex workers who walk in and give unsparing details about their lives, how they came to exchange sex for money, and what that ultimately means to them. Their stories are brutal, compelling and, occasionally, amusing. But they do not really amount to theatre – television documentaries cover this ground far more astutely and powerfully. This is worthy, verbatim theatre – but absent actors it seems painfully exploitative.
At one point in See Me Now, now playing at the Young Vic, one of the eleven sex workers who are telling their own life stories, wryly points out that the distinguishing trait about sex with sex workers is that, after sex, they are paid to leave.
Another ruefully explains that the criminal record she got from being caught in a brothel meant an end to her chances of making alternative employment come to fruition; she also notes that her treatment in the cells was more degrading than anything she had experienced in a brothel. Another tells a tale about taking her father with her to Thailand when she (then a transitioning to he) got a boob job.
The idea here is incredibly promising. Get eleven completely different types of sex workers to talk candidly about their lives and experiences and use that material as the basis for a verbatim piece of theatre. Although a musical, London Road struck me as the closest theatrical sibling to See Me Now.
The difference between the two is that where London Road employed actors to enliven the real life words and deeds, See Me Now opts for no actors: instead the actual sex-workers have their own moment in the spot-light, telling their own tale.
There is, no doubt, something cathartic and self-affirming about letting eleven individuals come onstage and, essentially, give a party piece about their lives. At least for them.
Whether it constitutes brabe and searing theatre is another question altogether. There are some of the eleven who are more naturally at ease on stage than others, and they are the most interesting to watch and hear speak, even if their stories are not necessarily the most extraordinary.
See Me Now has been created by the eleven workers, Mimi Poskitt, Molly Taylor and Young Vic Taking Part. There is a perhaps inevitable feeling of contrived spectacle – some rehearsed poses, some light choreography, some group therapy. These techniques are understandable in some ways, but are they the best staging possible for the piece?
The blunt reality is that unless you are dealing with actors, these sort of theatrical conventions will be alien and alienating. They are here. Some of the workers are visibly fazed by group stage activities or the stress that is the natural concomitant to choreography or singing on stage. You can see, almost feel, their stress. You can also see it translate into unwitting sabotage of their monologues.
In other cases, the lack of stagecraft exhibited by the workers diminishes the dramatic and comedic possibilities of their stories. Lines are dropped, pauses are uncomfortably long, the wrong accent is given to important words, cutting meaning or preventing a laugh from igniting. Each missed beat is noticed, regretted.
Peter is one of the most colourful characters, in costume and history. He acquits himself well, though obviously nerves are an issue; but his story is a powerful and unique one. One could not help thinking what Sir Ian Mckellen or Sylvester McCoy might done with that material. Equally, Benedict Cumberbatch or David Tennant as Flynt, the towpath converted businessman, or Catherine Tate or Alison Steadman as recovering drug and alcohol addict, and blow job expert, Jane.
It’s not a question of authenticity: it’s a question of theatricality. What is the very best way to unleash the potential that the stories of these brave eleven workers have shared? Using actors is the only answer and, truly, this production proves that.
On the other hand, it may be that some or all of the eleven were not willing for their stories to be told unless they themselves told the stories. If that is the case, then the creative team needed to work harder to ensure the material was presented in the best way and that the workers were supported as actors, trained and drilled in stage technique. Filmed excerpts of key scenes may have told the tales with more certain resonance.
Because at the end of this production, you feel a little like you have seen a reenactment of a terrific documentary film. The material in incredible, important – opening up a world almost always nailed shut behind curtains of assumptions and superiority.
Some stories inspire, some make you ashamed about your preconceptions, some make you feel like campaigning now for immediate justice. Others make you think more fondly than you thought you might about the elasticity of notions of right and wrong, of how love takes all forms as does cruel exploitation and manipulation.
It is impossible not to admire all eleven workers – they do something remarkable. But, equally, it is impossible not to see just how much more devastating and affecting See Me Now might be with actors delivering the material.