socially [un]acceptable

Written and performed by Whyalla local, Laura Desmond, socially [un]acceptable is a series of autobiographical vignettes that chart Desmond’s own experience of sexual assault and sexual predation perpetrated by those closest to her. At the premiere performance of socially [un]acceptable, held at The Producers Bar on July 7th, the crowd exceeded initial expectations and, despite the last minute addition of extra seating, some of the audience were still required to stand. Such appeal, ostensibly across all demographics, is a testament to the alarming relevance of sexual assault and the 'guilt culture' that surrounds it. Nevertheless, no matter how poignant the topic is, sexual assault remains a challenging and divisive subject to delve into.

Staged in-the-round, the audience was uncomfortably close to Desmond as she lay prone on a low, central platform. Stripped to her underwear, in easy reach of dozens of strangers, there was nowhere Desmond could hide as she narrated horrific incident after incident in quick succession. As she began each retelling, she dressed herself in clothes found discarded on the stage, as if left there from the night before. Beyond her words, the clothes are the only ‘setting’ we saw: casual shorts and shirt for a night at the bar, a formal dress for a collage event. As her narrative built to the moment of perpetration Desmond stripped again, a strong metaphor for her vulnerability both at the moment of assault and during the retelling. The simplicity of this performance is its great strength and one which is enhanced by the confronting knowledge that it is being narrated by an eye witness, by the victim. Sheer bravery notwithstanding, this is a potent first piece by such a young playwright and one that was created and staged in only six months.

Desmond’s script is bold, intelligent and flecked with a cynicism that lent a very dark humour to an already dark subject. Paired with the brevity of the performance, which was only fifty minutes long, at no point was the audience visibly restless. Indeed, I found myself considering every eloquent observation and punchy line. However, while testimonies of sexual assault are always 'raw', Desmond’s performance somehow did not invoke the potent emotional response I had expected. Throughout the performance Desmond’s voice often lacked inflection, range and depth; instead her voice remained even and considered. According to a fellow audience member and psychologist, detachment is a normal response to trauma, and perhaps Desmond was attempting to convey that perspective. In a theatrical performance, however, the lack of audible emotion in a performer’s voice can steal the emotional 'rawness' of the act being narrated. Personally, I found myself engaged only intellectually.

At the conclusion of the show, Desmond shared with the audience her hope for a social revolution that would “change the narrative” because “sex should be fun, sex with consent is fun.” People need to be motivated by emotion, to create substantial change you need to create strong emotions to fuel strong actions. To elevate socially [un]acceptable to one of the most powerful pieces I have ever seen, the performance needs to vocally give the audience an intense emotive experience as well as a graphic narrative.

Desmond offers her performance as a critique of the cultural normalization that surrounds sexual predation. It is honest, brave and thought provoking. I expect that socially [un]acceptable will make many audience members reconsider social norms around sexual assault when it debuts at the Edinburgh Fringe later this year.

★★★½