If you are reading a review of Hula House you either have or wish to have an opinion on the debates surrounding the decriminalization of sex work in the UK and/or elsewhere. Good. The inexplicable (or, given the Western hemisphere’s soi-disant sexual revolution began at least half a century ago, unforgivable) taboos that cling to actual, informed and adult, dialogue about and with sex workers in patriarchal cultures across the globe need challenging; Jenny Kondol and Sarah Xanthe’s Permanently Visible Productions leaps along that obstacle course with sinuous grace, formidable energy, and earnest, muscular intellectual integrity.
The design is simple: audience members enter a make-believe brothel (staged as a well-lit, largely prosaic living room), are welcomed by a lace-clad mistress of ceremonies, and presented with the body of an exquisitely made-up woman (complete with pineapple, sausage rolls and party favours piled atop her) laid out feast-like on a table around which they are seated in a circle and invited to partake. The action swings in and out of reality: party games include fictionalized whippings of a pregnant sex worker from Croydon, ‘fact attacks’ to inform you that while solicitation and phone-booth advertisements vociferating about Girls! Girls! Girls! are illegal in the UK, prostitution per se is not, and shattering spoken word / narrative interludes (some live, some recorded) of or inspired by lives of women engaged in sex work, that now and again end with the somehow even more wrenching words, “but that is not my story”. The sense of how easily it might be, of how significant and yet irrelevant that manipulable fact is — its precarity as either or both absolute or customizable knowledge — is never closer or clearer. What circumstances are these, that self-representation has no currency over representation by another as an Other?
Kondol’s and Xanthe’s performances are riveting. Once the buffet has been exhausted (consumed, yes, by us) the ostensibly non-native English-speaking, curtseying and brightly smiling, would-be submissive ‘Lover’ transforms herself into a leather-clad Londoner far more businesslike and authoritative a figure than aforementioned commissionaire, who quickly becomes her second. If one were not wholly absorbed in the stories unfolding, in the raw, perfectly synchronized and controlled (though one does not find that out until later) physical excesses interspersed with equally startling, sudden switches to vital, living, breathing banality, one might profitably spend the play enthralled by the fluid, constantly shifting yet consistently, exquisitely equipoised power dynamics played out by the two performers in their various guises, by their personas or persons (one is of course never sure which).
Both through speech and movement, easy and uneasy, violent and languid, Kondol and Xanthe take it in turns to circle, articulate or act out one constant: prostitution is a verbal construct that occupies the conjunction of money and power; the (more often) female body is merely the material or the transactional function through which it is manifested in a form particularly fearful, and therefore particularly execrated, intimidated, and brutalized, by those who simultaneously (paradoxically, but also unsurprisingly), most urgently require its perpetuation. The performance of pain is followed by play — such is the prescription society enforces upon those it wishes to retain as most vulnerable. Make of that what you will –– but try not to be too long about it.