Controversial Kentish Town play invites you to step inside a brothel
Permanently Visible’s Hula House is coming to Camden People’s Theatre. An immersive show which sees audiences enter the world of two sex workers, it makes the argument for legalising prostitution, finds Alex Bellotti
Two weeks ago, Amnesty International caused a storm when they voted to support the decriminalisation of prostitution. At the heart of the debate were two arguments: one that said decriminalisation would offer sex workers more support by not forcing them underground, and another which said it would just give more legitimacy to those exploiting them.
Amnesty’s viewpoint is being supported by Hula House, a new immersive play which invites its audience into a fictional brothel to discover the realities of the sex work industry. Coming to Camden People’s Theatre this September as part of its annual feminism festival, the show was created by theatre company Permantly Visible and developed through dialogue with the Kentish Town-based English Collective of Prostitutes.
“As a company, we tend to speak up for people who are perhaps suffering in silence and deal with subjects that are a kind of taboo,” says Permanently Visible’s Jenny Kondol, who stars in Hula House alongside co-creator Sarah Xanthe.
“It wasn’t actually until we started a relationship with the English Collective of Prostitutes that we really began to realise why we wanted to do the piece, what message we wanted to get across and whose stories we wanted to tell.”
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During the show, Kondol, 26, and Xanthe, 27, play two prostitutes who lay themselves bare “both metaphorically and physically” in a series of stories and games. Having debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe, the play’s immersive style has divided critics – the Guardian called it “seriously misguided”, while the Scotsman praised its “insight” into the dehumanisation of sex workers.
As Kondol explains, the pair aim to show a different side of prostitution – one that doesn’t focus on human trafficking, but rather the “normal” British women who turn to the line of work because of financial burden.
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“Not everyone who works in the sex industry has a normal life; some people are forced, coerced or trafficked into it, but that’s not the story we wanted to tell,” she says. “We’re telling the story of women who have got into it usually through falling beyond the breadline and austerity measures, meaning that while they do it by choice, it’s not an ideal situation but a necessity.”
Brian Logan, Artistic Director of Camden People’s Theatre, believes the play’s exploration of female oppression was a natural fit for the Calm Down, Dear festival, which has previously hosted the London premieres of shows including Bridget Christie’s A Bic For Her and Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It.
Intriguingly, he notes that there isn’t a “clear cut feminist position” on the decriminalisation of prostitution. “You know what the feminist position is on representation of women in the media, for example, but what’s provocative about Hula House is that plenty of feminists would strongly disagree that prostitution should be decriminalised.”
So what are the show’s justifications for it? For Kondol, it’s a case of security: she stresses the difficulties of regulating an underground industry and cites “so many stories of women being assaulted and trying to go to the police for help, but not being supported because they’re sex workers”.
But could it help the facilitators of sex work as many suggest? “A lot of people have come back against the Amnesty draft policy and said this is just a chance for the exploiters to cash in on it, but we feel along with the ECP and Amnesty that if it can be monitored, then perhaps we can find out who these people are and put out more preventative measures to stop them. People who are coerced or forced into it could also be much more likely to come forward if there’s no fear of prosecution, and if they know they can be accepted.”
Other shows in the festival, which starts on September 16, include Louise Orwin’s A Girl and a Gun, a new work exploring the prevalence of images of girls with guns on film; and Racheal Ofori’s Portrait, which looks at the trials and tribulations of modern life as seen through the eyes of a young black woman.
Hula House runs from September 18-26 as an off-site production at Camden People’s Theatre. Visit cptheatre.co.uk