When Daniel Radcliffe starred in Equus there were countless headlines boasting that Harry Potter would be getting naked, as if Peter Shaffers play had absolutely nothing else to merit it.
This week the London press has been full of previews of Nic Greens Trilogy, which appeared at last years Edinburgh Fringe, all focusing on the fact that the play features naked female dancing.
But having dismissed this coverage as hype, I was surprised to realise that Trilogy really would not be the show that it is without the female nudity, both by virtue of the air time it is given, and the extent to which it is presented as a way of advancing the feminist cause.Creator Nic Green, along with the four other main performers, was born in the early 1980s and might be described as a new wave feminist, building on the ideas of Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston for the modern day. In the first act of her three-part play, she and Laura Bradshaw cite The Female Eunuch to show how society encourages women to see themselves as worthless if they do not possess the (unobtainable) perfect body that gratifies men. They then dance nude to show that by celebrating their imperfect bodies they are living just for themselves, and releasing themselves from the shackles of mens expectations.
They are then joined in a frenetic naked dance by nearly forty ladies from the local community who have volunteered for the show, and clearly seem to enjoy themselves on stage. This is fine as far as it goes, and if (as it appears) the participants find the experience exhilarating and liberating then that is all to the good. The dance is in no way titillating or erotic, and happily no man in the audience (of whom I was one) seems to have taken it as such.
And yet I still have my doubts as to what precisely it achieves. Despite Greens intention to involve women of all ages, shapes and sizes, with just a few exceptions all of the dancers seem to be in their twenties and thirties. And if anyone asks who wants to see an elderly woman naked, that is precisely my point. If we believe that we liberate women by seeing them drop their clothes, almost by default we prevent vast numbers from ever being liberated.
More fundamentally, as someone who believes that there are a wealth of feminist causes still to be fought, I am uncertain as to how much this approach really furthers them. It is admirable that these women dance purely for themselves, but it makes feminism feel very divisive, shutting the man out. Surely the feminist cause needs to involve men since they too must fight against female discrimination in the workplace, and for gender equality around the world.
Nevertheless, on its own terms, the first act does what it sets out to do, which unfortunately makes the second feel rambling in comparison. Showing footage of the 1971 New York Town Hall debate between misogynist icon Norman Mailer and figures such as Greer and Johnston, it supposedly establishes a relationship between feminist pioneers and the shows main performers, all of whom were born a decade after this debate occurred. But with the dancing to the footage proving distracting, and numerous questions being posed without then being explored, it all feels more confusing than enlightening, and the act, once again, ends with a naked dance.
Happily, Act Three fares better as the points it raises feel highly important. Green exposes the alarming extent to which occurrences of rape are popularly underestimated, reveals how the stoning of women is still commonplace around the world, and illustrates how feminism may even have taken a step or two backwards in recent times. Then when we hear how Lauras mother is now happy to accept her own body as it is, the serene expressions of joy on both her and Nics faces are no act, and truly uplifting to witness.
Nevertheless, the main reason for still recommending this play is that you are unlikely ever to experience anything quite like it. It demonstrates just how powerful theatre can be, because when at the end female audience members are invited to drop their clothes on stage and sing Jerusalem naked, a significant number do just that. Before witnessing this for myself, I would never have believed that any theatrical moment was capable of moving people to such an extent.
In no way do I find Greens approach counterproductive, and anything that makes anyone feel good about themselves should be rightly applauded. I cant help feeling, however, that it achieves less than it purports to, and that it unhelpfully excludes men to the last.
Following this weeks run at Battersea Arts Centre, Trilogy appears at the Barbican, 22-23 January 2010.