War Paint is an immersive theatrical experience located in a Marylebone flat; the audience is invited to walk through the space and observe four women getting ready to go out, while pre-recorded conversations are played on speakers in each room. The flat is typical: there are clothes and books and posters and coursework and wine glasses scattered around, creating a distinctly young and female space. Carefully chosen details, such as the screen of a laptop in the kitchen, which is open to a page on dieting, contribute to the focus on beauty, highlighting the pervasiveness of modern-day attitudes towards the female body.
The taped voices play while the girls silently get ready, each at a different stage in the evening: bathing, moisturising, dressing, and so on. The conversations we hear are often unrelated to the action we observe, and this juxtaposition makes the voices seem like thoughts or memories, something just below the surface, a tumult beneath the calm exterior. In one room, a girl tries to settle on an outfit while several voices discuss self-consciousness, public nudity, and parental strife, revealing the deeper concerns behind the choice between the black lace top and the yellow jumpsuit.
The girls’ behaviour is at once totally quotidian and surprisingly alienating; rarely do we see such an honest look at the process of getting ready to go out in public for young women today. The production does not glamorise this process – rather, it highlights the messiness and difficulty and struggle of conforming to societal beauty expectations. One girl has difficulty finding underwear which works with her outfit, struggling to put on her backless bra so she can wear a lacy top – which also, incidentally, requires a fight to get on. Another is plucking her eyebrows and removing hair from her upper lip, and the tapes in the other girls’ rooms discuss messy subjects such as pubic hair, periods, and farting.
This performance does a skilful job of examining the tension inherent in beauty culture: the actions we witness are rituals of womanhood, familiar to many female audience members, and comforting because of this; however, the production also exposes the lengths to which women must go in order to be accepted, asking us whether something so damaging can ever be positive. The production does not attempt to answer these questions – instead, it is an honest and raw look at the multitude of issues facing young women, and by extension young people, in our society.
Rather than an organised promenade, this is a completely immersive experience, in which the audience is encouraged to explore the flat and the lives of its inhabitants. This has the effect of preventing us from attaining any kind of narrative satisfaction: we cannot listen to each story from beginning to end, and instead have to chop and change between them, hearing fragments from several stories at once and choosing which rooms to enter.
It would, in such a small space, be impossible to direct the audience through a choreographed route in order to experience each room in turn, and this is perhaps for the best. The chaos; the sense of overwhelming confusion about all of these issues; the abundance of spoken and unspoken ‘rules’ about how to be a woman – all of this is conveyed most effectively in the commotion of the flat, in the fact that we leave a short twenty minutes after entering, with no answers at all; instead, all we are left with is the same nagging sense of insecurity, of uncertainty about what is required of us, as the girls in the flat.