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On-stage nudity: art or just a marketing ploy?

When weighing up the pros and cons of on-stage nudity, I think that there are three factors to consider. What does the depiction of a naked body contribute to your piece? Who is your target audience? And last, but certainly not least, will the use of on-stage nudity as a marketing strategy actually be beneficial to your production? Or will it sink the play before you even make it to opening night?

For a piece such as 2017’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I feel that we can dismiss the question of the propriety of showing the naked body on stage. After all, a play that delves into subversive themes, such as homosexual repression, envy, domestic abuse and sexual frustration, will not realistically be made all the more controversial or ‘inappropriate’ by a couple of attractive actors, Sienna Miller and Jack O’ Connell in this case, flaunting their goods (although I am more than certain that there would have been at least a couple of prudes per performance doing a good impression of Helen Lovejoy!). I think that what we need to consider regarding Benedict Andrews’ decision to show the naked figures of Brick and Margaret on stage is the aforementioned question: what does the depiction of a naked body contribute to the play? Or, to put it more simply: is there a point to it? Or is it just nudity for the sake of nudity?

What does the depiction of a naked body contribute to your piece?

Although all I have to go on for the success of Andrews’ production is second-hand reviews, Katie Berrington made a compelling defence of the production’s use of on-stage nudity, claiming that “the production holds enough weight not to get lost behind their state of undress, much as the tabloid media would like to”.

Theatre is fundamentally about humanity, and so the human body is naturally the most efficient tool to reflect the psychological turmoil of a specific character. That is why Sarah Kane’s theatre often focuses on exposed, sexualised bodies. Kane uses depictions of physical, bodily suffering and acts of violence in order to convey the psychological deterioration of her characters (such as Phedra in Phedra’s Love) to an audience.

Another of Berrington’s examples in defence of on-stage nudity, is the exposure of naked bodies in the conclusion of Cabaret, which was intended to represent the dehumanising treatment of prisoners within a concentration camp. The reaction of the audience to this artistic depiction of “humanity at its most exposed and vulnerable” was described as shocked silence. As a fairly frequent theatregoer myself (when the pitiful state of my bank account allows me), I recognise the silence that she described in her article. It is a powerful thing.

The production holds enough weight not to get lost behind their state of undress, much as the tabloid media would like to

Katie Berrington

My disagreement with Berrington and her defence of on-stage nudity comes from her claim that nudity was “vital” to eliciting such a reaction from an audience. This is something that can be derived from the overwhelming tendency of our contemporary “liberated” culture to push sex from any platform it can, something I believe is actually detrimental to the supposed shock value of on-stage nudity. In her article, Berrington mentions how the exposure of male and female bodies is already prevalent across much modern mainstream entertainment. She gives examples such as the mind-numbingly dull Naked Attraction and the insidiously idiotic Love Island.

I can list another recent example: the first episode of BBC Two’s MotherFatherSon, where the titular ‘Son’, played by Billy Howle, strips completely naked before proceeding to have sexual intercourse with a prostitute. My eyebrows didn’t even twitch. It wasn’t shocking. It did nothing to convey the psychologically damaged young man’s vulnerability. That was far more effectively demonstrated through the shows rather decent dialogue. To me, the depiction of a naked body was just that: a naked body being half-heartedly thrown in my face in some vain attempt to shock me as a viewer.

The exposure of male and female bodies is already prevalent across much modern mainstream entertainment

Although I have not seen this production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I fear that the director’s artistic choice can be derived from the same artistic philosophy – and that’s if I’m being generous. The cynical side of me whispers that such a directorial decision in fact stems from a desire to market the piece. For better or for worse, and despite the protests of the prudes, it cannot be denied that sex is always a good selling point.

With that in mind, let’s talk about the marketability of on-stage nudity. Does it sell? Yes. There is a reason why, nine times out of ten, the actors selected to expose themselves on stage are rather attractive. The question we should really be asking is whether theatre should try to sell itself in this way.

While I feel it would be wrong to assert that on-stage nudity inherently has no place in theatre, I do frown at the antics of commercial theatre. No, I’m not being radical – commercial theatre has its place, and theatre as an industry deserves to make money as much as any other field of entertainment. But that doesn’t mean that actors, directors and writers should sacrifice the potential impact of subtly implied sex or violence on an audience. Harold Pinter’s One for the Road is a haunting example of this; the sexual and physical violence undergone by its characters all transpires off stage. Yet this subtlety is balanced out by the darkly rich monologues of its protagonist. It is shocking, powerful, nauseating and humorous – and the actors manage to keep their clothes on the entire time on stage. Fancy that.

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