Tanika Gupta: Interview

This week, a thought-provoking new play focusing on female sex tourism opens at the Royal Court Theatre. Time Out meets the writer and director Tanika Gupta

  • Tanika Gupta: Interview

    Javone Prince, Lynda Bellingham and Jason Frederick in 'Sugar Mummies'

  • Sea, sand and sex tourism come together in the play that marks the end of what has already been a sizzling hot summer for the Royal Court. Following the sell-out success of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rock ’n’ Roll’, the theatre’s now staging a work whose controversial subject matter has been splashing itself brazenly across arts pages in recent weeks. By complete coincidence, Tanika Gupta’s ‘Sugar Mummies’ opens within weeks of the UK release of the film ‘Heading South’, starring Charlotte Rampling, and though the works are very different, they both zoom in on what happens when women – rather than men – go abroad to pay for sex. Set in Negril, Jamaica, Gupta’s play follows nine different characters in a quest that proves to be as emotionally erratic as it is dubiously erotic.

    Over the last ten years it has seemed that there’ve been few taboos left to break about women and sex on stage, whether it’s been Eve Ensler encouraging audiences to yell out ‘cunt’ in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ or Catalan director Calixto Bieito romping through the boundaries of taste by adding necrophilia with Lady Macduff to his 2003 ‘Macbeth’ at the Barbican. Yet according to the play’s director, Indhu Rubasingham, ‘Sugar Mummies’ should still prove a wake-up call for audience members who consider themselves to be open-minded.

    ‘Theatre audiences think they’re very liberal, think they’re political, and generally tend to be very white,’ she asserts. ‘I think a play like this will challenge their preconceptions and prejudices – because while on one level [female sex tourism] might seem to be about women’s liberation, it’s really another form of colonisation.’

    Playwright Gupta was commissioned to write the play after the Royal Court’s artistic director, Ian Rickson, and literary manager, Graham Whybrow, read feminist campaigner Julie Bindel’s article on what was happening in Jamaica. Gupta herself went out to research the play in Negril with her husband and three children in tow – ‘so while they were digging sandcastles I was going around chatting up gigolos,’ she laughs.

    On the beach, she found herself submerged in a culture where ‘self-deception and self-delusion is the order of the day. The women don’t call these guys gigolos or prostitutes. They call them beach boys or they call them their boyfriend, and I guess it’s slightly different in that they’re not paying for the sex so much as they’re paying for the compliments. I know what it’s like – I’m a married woman and all the rest of it – but still after a day on that beach where men are calling you beautiful all the time – it affects you. You come off thinking “Goddammit, I am. I am so beautiful!” ’

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