I got into a tense I-am-a-critic mode while watching The Sex Worker’s Opera at The Pleasance Theatre last Friday. In a criticism dolly zoom, I felt distance between myself and the show, like I was pushing my glasses further up my nose and trying to examine something held at arms length. I felt suspicious of the work before me / Weird when I normally write about affinities and encounters, when I normally write towards warmth, immanence / and here I was jammed and awkward. Weirder still, I remembered feeling the same way the day before watching Jenkin Van Zyl’s film ‘Escape From Fort Bravo’ at the Slade's BA Degree Show. On both occasions, something was getting in the way of my enjoyment, and so I’m writing through that now.
Both of these had at their art-heart a tight polemic, a didactic push, something brazen and willed and sharp. Because I agreed with the politics of the works, they had my support straight away; and it is support that made me generous and optimistic like a parent at their kid’s play < sociopolitic as reference point for the distance I watched from > but when I got my phone out to make notes, I realised I was more like the kid’s cynical auntie. I mean, the kid still has my support, I just don’t think they are as good as the mum praises them to be. That is my position, jammed/ almost redundant to experience something that I didn’t quite feel myself experiencing/ so here, I have answer-suggestions as to why I could not be a cheerleader, and it starts with the critical position I’ve described, biased and optimistic. From there, the skepticism comes in like some affect where there is lag between content and execution; polemic and production. I think Escape From Fort Bravo was over-produced and The Sex Worker’s Opera under. And in my critical heart this is a failure, and in my generosity, it is an interesting strength; if I lean into it, it is not a bad thing and I mean it as a description: EFFB was like burnt sugar; TSWO like your face comes undone after you have cried away complexion. Van Zyl’s film was Ryan Trecartin x Mika Rottenberg + drones + GPOY prosthetics: flashy totalising surround-sound delirium. And The Sex Worker’s Opera had its sometimes-awkward acting, its sometimes-awkward silences. It had an unsophisticated-misshapeness, a narrative structure that seemed to cough. TSWO played out on a bare stage floor in front of a set that slumped; EFFB played bright across three screens in the curl of a heavy, leathered installation.
Still leaning in, I decide that I can’t enjoy either but I appreciate them both anyway. This review rests on that ‘anyway,’ as I wonder if The Sex Worker’s Opera and Escape From Fort Bravo should even look to be enjoyed (my theatre-film assumption left unfulfilled, totally-totally okay). And if I’m leaning in to the point I’m just about remaining balanced: my appreciation comes in where the respective polemic and production levels in each work align. Those relationships are proved strong, and it is like formal sincerity, like saying something in the exact tone it should be meant and said and heard/ and then hearing the sound of your own voice and knowing it is right. Van Zyl had me excited but grimacing, and The Sex Worker’s Opera had me celebrating even as I was on edge. Affect and politic are facilitated where the production surfaces, which I almost love - like maybe the edges of the play and the film are bevelled, like these forms (stretched loose and tight over production and polemic) are onomatopoeic to their own formal sincerity. I like the roundedness of that. I want to feel it again.