Grin and bare it – nudity in theatre

29 April 2013

Suzanne Duffy argues that nudity in theatre can challenge the way an audience thinks…

It has become a running joke that I like to see plays with nudity in them. Having failed to convince my friends that this isn’t because I just like seeing people naked, I’m going to try and convince you instead. I am genuinely interested in why a director would choose to have someone naked on stage, in what nudity says about our cultural boundaries and how far theatre can take us out of our comfort zone before we react against it.

Nudity in theatre can be criticised for being a crass way to give shock value to a production, but it is precisely because it still shocks that it is such a powerful tool. We think we are comfortable with the naked body; after all it appears to be all around us, in adverts and magazines, testament to the old adage that ‘sex sells’. But these images have the fat shaved off and the blemishes stripped away, so what we really see is a flimsy paper doll of what humans might look like if they were produced in factories. The raw power of theatre, on the other hand, is that it can cause you to experience discomfort by exposing you (no pun intended) to things that you might not be as accepting of as you thought.

One of the most effective moments I have ever experienced as an audience member was during David Farr’s 2010 production of King Lear. As Greg Hicks’ Lear lost his sanity, he repeatedly approached taking all his clothes off, only to change his mind at the last minute. This technique was responsible for creating almost unbearable tension as Lear reached the height of his madness and it was entirely fuelled by one collective thought: ‘I do not want to see this person naked’. An old man under a spotlight is quite different to a starlet in a perfume advert and it forces an audience to participate fully in a production by questioning their attitude to the stage and what belongs on it.

On the Mumford Theatre website, the page on the upcoming production, Michelangelo Drawing Blood, warns: ‘this performance contains male nudity’. The fact that they feel the need to state gender shows that they have customers in mind who will object only to certain kinds of nudity. The fascinating and nuanced rules which people seem to have, concerning what is and is not ‘proper’, are brought out by a director and cast brave enough to make the decision to challenge an audience.

Watching dance artists Igor and Moreno at The Cambridge Junction’s season launch night earlier this year convinced me that nudity can be an instrumental tool in creating humour as well. Once you have watched a man leap energetically about a stage in only his socks, all the while chased by another man with a handily-sized piece of cardboard trying to restore his dignity, the boundary between shock and comedy melts and the laughter in the theatre is uncontrollable rather than dutiful.

Nudity also remodels our conception of acting. We usually think of acting as a skill that requires putting things on: make up, a costume, a personality. Yet, when material things are being stripped away instead, the actor must act with their whole body and fully come to terms with the public scrutiny that all acting involves.

Nudity in theatre calls into question how and why we produce theatre, what the audience wants, what actors are willing to do and what effect is being created. It should be used with care and not gratuitously, since, when a director really gets it right, it is one of the most potent tools of the modern stage.