Sex Workers Opera Oval House Theatre 52-54 Kennington Oval London SE11 4/5
The Sex Worker’s Opera was originally devised in 2014 and has previously been staged at the Courtyard, the Arcola and the Pleasance Theatre. Its restaging here, at the Ovalhouse, is a testament to its vital message.
What you get in this production isn’t slick, polished performance. But it’s not meant to be. Rather, this is a powerful piece of agit-prop theatre, which demands its audience listen to the voices of sex workers and to a politics rooted in their personal experience.
The piece is performed by a mixture of sex workers and professional actors and the show directly draws on the lived experiences of those workers, as well as augmenting their experiences with others from around the world.
The agit-prop structure of the piece means it is performed in a mix of styles. So while, the production loosely follows Simone and Natalie, sisters who’ve fallen out over one’s sex work, it also blends drama, song, testimony, movement and pole dancing.
This is really provocative and serves to foreground the vibrancy of this political community, making sure that we hear their voices, not merely others commenting on them — a vital political move, in and of itself.
These voices and stories are most powerfully present in the testimonials in which individuals simply, powerfully tell us about their work. Indeed, the production is often more effective in its simpler moments — at the beginning of the second half, one of the performers describes for the audience the workshops they’ve been running with sex workers from around the country and then invites us to listen to songs produced in those workshops.
It really demonstrates the power of theatre to build political community.
At times though, the script needs editing and the arguments developing. We often return to survival as a (vital and undeniable) motive for undertaking sex work, but that’s never really brought into dialogue with the powerful anti-capitalist and sex-positive messages we find elsewhere.
Perhaps more exploration of the relationship between race and sex work might also have been productive.
But that said, the demand to be heard and not judged, the deconstruction of the stereotypical image of a sex worker and the way the production highlights how sex workers are so often blamed for sexist male behaviour are all compelling.
A thoughtful piece of work, the Sex Worker’s Opera asks us to engage with and listen to sex workers, not judge or speak for them.