The stage is set – with a giant golden platform sandal – and out walks co-director and co-producer Alex Etchart dressed as a cross between a ringmaster and a rooster. It’s a strong look and suitably suggestive of the mash-up of genres that follows. Opera meets poetry, hip-hop, spoken word, folk and jazz, all of which are utilised by the cast – a mix of actual sex workers and professional actors – to tell their own stories, and those of sex workers around the world.
Throughout this devised, vignette-based show the message is clear: these sex workers want ‘rights not rescue’ and for people to listen to them rather than speaking for them. If there’s a villain of the piece it’s legislators who make their work illegal and therefore more dangerous; they also pay tribute to the women ‘rescued’ in the 2013 Soho raids and the inhumane way that they were treated by the police.
The discussion around sex work has traditionally presented three tropes; the reformed character, apologetic and ashamed of her sordid past; the tragic victim, unhealthy to the point of death; and the ‘Pretty Woman’ waiting to be rescued by her leading man.
‘The Sex Workers’ Opera’ takes these tropes and slaps them round the face with a PVC glove – here the stories are about real people. The truth of the industry seems to be somewhere in between the glamour of Belle du Jour and the grittiness of ‘Band of Gold’ and has some of the mundanity of office work – apparently nobody is free from the horror of spreadsheets. Arguably this show ignores the grim reality of trafficked women, but as so much of the discourse around the sex industry is taken up with those horrifying stories it’s good to have a different conversation.
Distilled to its core the show is a plea for us to listen, to allow sex workers to tell their own stories. Unfortunately the powerful people who really need to listen are unlikely to be in the audience.