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18 August 2019

At Edinburgh, bodies take centre stage

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

A young woman is hanging from the ceiling, a rope criss-crossed around her topless form, her hair flailing. 

Everything I See I Swallow, which is on all month at Edinburgh’s Summerhall as part of the Fringe (and has this week won a Scotsman Fringe First Award for original writing), combines heady drama and aerial ropework in a cutting analysis of bodily agency. It asks: who has the right to look at my body? Who has the right to touch it? Can I be both a feminist and willing to be desired as a sexual being?

From a young age, Olivia (Maisy Taylor) was always called “beautiful”, a teenage Olivia tells us. As she grew older, she understood this to mean that her beauty is not always hers alone. “My beauty belongs to those who find me beautiful. My body belongs to those who find me beautiful,” she says, remembering the “burning gaze” of a man on a bus, as she pulls on jeans and a t-shirt to cover up her body which has, up until now, been left bare.

To consciously regain control of her beauty and her body, Olivia takes up shibari, the traditional Japanese art of rope bondage. For a 21st-century British girl, this means contorting herself into skilful, erotic poses and taking photos to upload to Instagram. The play unfurls as a series of twists and turns as she winds herself around one of three thick ropes hanging from the auditorium’s ceiling, always hovering between outlandish elegance and uncomfortable danger – and having to explain herself to her mother at every turn. 

Travis Alabanza’s bodily agency was taken from them in a transphobic attack on Waterloo Bridge in April 2016, when a man hurled a burger at them, calling them a “tranny”, and leaving them to wipe the mayonnaise off their dress. Burgerz, Alabanza’s one-person show currently on at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and touring the UK in November, is their courageous way of reconciling with the incident, an attempt to regain control over the weapon at hand – a burger. During the course of the play, Alabanza prepares a real-life burger, considering each of its component parts and even its box, and reckoning with it not just as a metaphor for violence, but as a physical, formable entity. 

While Olivia has her mother beside her, no matter how much they clash, Alabanza is alone until they request an audience member to assist them with the cooking. They ask for a “white, cisgender man” – and find it in James, a thoughtful volunteer who ties on an apron and helps prepare the burger. As the pair go about mincing beef and cutting lettuce, all carried out in a swish one-unit kitchenette with endless compartments and an Arts Council-stocked mini-bar, Alabanza quizzes James on his masculinity. “What does it feel like to be a man?”, “When did you decide you were a man?”, “How does it feel to be something you didn’t consciously decide?” they ask. 

Once the burger starts cooking, meaty smoke billows from the pan and fills the room in an obnoxious infiltration of space and sense. As the smell intensifies, Alabanza fiercely recounts incidents of transphobic violence they have experienced on the bus, on the tube, walking home after a night out. Performance, they say, is an intrinsic part of the modern trans experience. “Bad things happen and we have to go onstage and perform in order to be believed.”

In contrast, Olivia has it easy – she comes from a wealthy family, as her mother points out – but financial stability can’t buy back one’s own body, and so she performs to answer questions of ownership, too. Her mother (Tamsin Shasha), power-dressed in a hot-pink suit and heels, is an old-school feminist, who proudly recounts her time spent protesting at Greenham Common decades previously. She cannot understand how something once used for tying up prisoners has become an act of liberation, and sees her daughter’s new pursuit as no different to porn, the photos showing off her body “like a piece of meat”. In one particularly cutting exchange, she calls out: “You are a shining example of the patriarchy at work!” 

The pair battle it out with quotations from historical and contemporary figures – Beyoncé, Mary Wollstonecraft, Naomi Wolf, Angela Carter. It is clear that while both may call themselves feminists, there is a generation gap. “Mum, you’re obsessed with gender,” Olivia says, “we’ve moved on from that.” Her mother is caught up with matters of biology and will later quote Caitlin Moran – “Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist”– in what these days feels like a troublingly basic and cisnormative understanding of both gender and feminism. 

Finally, they agree with Charlotte Brontë’s understanding – “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will” – and they become bound to one another’s trust. They unravel rope around each other, and rely on their balanced weights to keep the routine seamless. Both finally on the same rope, Olivia helps her mother climb up above her, in a fierce depiction of strength and elegance. 

For Alabanza, it is another’s refusal to act that confirms their independent worth. With James back in his seat, Alabanza pulls up a new volunteer from the crowd. They ask her to throw the burger at them, so, this time prepared for it, they can understand how the burger “works, flies, smells, lands”. Unwilling to fling a weaponised structure towards them, the volunteer refuses. She won’t do it. She will not encroach on Alabanza’s body, for it is theirs to own alone.

“Everything I See I Swallow” by Shasha and Taylor Productions is on at Summerhall, Edinburgh until 25 August. “Burgerz” by Travis Alabanza continues at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until 25 August and then goes to Dublin Theatre Festival from 9-12 October. It will tour the UK from 11 November, ending at London’s Southbank Centre for three shows from 29 November. 

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