"Men in first; women wait here." So said the ushers at Hysteria, the new production to be staged the umbrella of BITE. We were queuing on the rather grand Hogarth staircase in St Barts waiting to see a show by the Brazilian company Grupo XIX de Treatro. This piece is set in a 19th century mental institution and, as it portrays a world strictly divided on gender lines, so the audience are divided, the men made to sit separately on one side of the room - the hospital's ornate Great Hall - while the women sat on benches and on the floor.
As a subject matter it's not unfamiliar. Many of the expected elements were there: much shrieking and writhing on the floor, generic 'mad' acting, women with wild hair mumbling about making themselves pretty for Jesus. And yet, despite that, it was quite an affecting piece of theatre. This was due to the way the female members of the audience were pulled into the world of the play – sometimes literally – being taken by the hand and led in a dance or asked simple, curious questions: "how old are you?" "Do you have a husband?" Though the rather pinch-lipped woman who was asked, "are you an onanist?" did not, perhaps understandably, seem too enamoured of the experience.
I was one of those sat on the floor. And, sitting there, cross-legged on the worn wood, being told what to do and where to sit, I felt transported back to school, to the assembly hall – I felt appropriately small and willing to do as I was bidden. Which, fortunately, wasn’t that much, bar a bit of twirling. Others were less, or more, lucky depending on your attitude to audience participation. Some women got invited to stand on a bench and chant along with the inmates or were interrogated by the ‘matron’ figure. The underlying theme was one of rules and their breaking, with many of the women depicted locked away for not conforming or for being excessively sexual. By being drawn into the performance, into this world, it forced me to think about what is deemed acceptable and what is not, for women today, for anyone.
Fiona Mountford, writing in the Standard, called the production ‘irredeemably dire’ which I find an excessively harsh reaction. While it’s true, the women never develop as individual characters and their accents do no favours to the coherence of the piece, it still has its own power. Being there, on display, in front of the male section of the audience, at times forced to perform, was quite a strange experience, and for all its mess and clutter – it is rather a messy thing – it cast a certain spell.