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Review – SUDS Presents: Project XXX

An entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of pornography and exploitation that occasionally muddles its message.

Project XXX opens with an overwhelming dance number. Choreographer and Assistant Director Isla Mowbray created a scene which is meant to be shocking, stepping over the line of simply risque, and it succeeds. The piece serves to set the backdrop for the rest of the play, where normal people are affected and influenced by the egregious, shocking and outlandish world that is pornography.

The story follows 15-year-old Amy (Danielle Cabubas), after a video is posted of her onto the website Project XXX, a thin allegory for PornHub, showing her performing sexual acts on her then-boyfriend (Sam Martin). Seeking to reclaim control of how her sexuality is shown online, she decides to post a self-made sex tape of her losing her virginity, on her 16th birthday. She chooses and pursues 25-year-old videographer Callum (Spencer Clark) in order to film and participate in the event. Throughout the play, Callum is both comforted and plagued by his obsession with award-winning pornstar Jenna (Abi Coffey), who drops her sexualised facade to speak directly to the audience about her real experiences.

The stage is split between a run down DVD-store, where Amy works, and a grubby bedroom belonging to Callum. The set, props and costumes are achingly detailed and heavily nostalgic. Elements such as  the faded colours of the failing store filled with ready-to-paint figurines, or one of the characters genuinely using a velcro wallet,  instantly lets us know where we are before the characters even mention the isolated town in which the play is set. The emphasis of the analogue, as well as physical copies of movies and memories, also serves as a sharp distinction to the online world that we have so quickly moved to.

Following the opening dance, the play wastes no time in bringing the digital to the forefront, with screens scattered across the stage making the audience a participant. We see the navigation into incognito mode (a witty touch), and then watch clips and snippets, phenomenally created by videographer Charlie Hollands, of what was suggested in the dance. A specific clip which we see in the beginning of the show is seen being filmed in a later scene. This forethought is both delightful and clever, much like the pointedness of Amy’s wardrobe evolving with her intentions, as well as the music she listens to and books she reads clearly alluding to the feminist rhetoric that she espouses.

The play manages to continue to come across as well-thought out during its entire runtime, while also containing several hilarious moments, such as when  a a passionate monologue stressing the importance of movies is delivered while Clark holds a copy of Alvin and the Chipmunks. The jokes are funny, the actors work wonderfully together, and the pacing is quick. The audience is not bored.

Yet, despite all this, I found the play deeply discomforting. Amy’s adoption of an aggressive feminist rhetoric is used to defend herself to her online community, and yet we are repeatedly shown that the control she so insists she has is constantly given up or compromised. I understand so deeply why she is angry at sympathisers and takes her situation to the extreme in order to not be perceived as weak. But this isn’t addressed, or even really rectified. I am infuriated every time she compromises for a man 10 years her senior, comforts and reassures him, translates his feelings into words, and made even more so upset when he realises her age and then continues to date her, later agreeing to sleep with her. I felt myself having to consciously ignore Amy’s age in order to enjoy any aspect of the play without being horrified – but that may very well be the point.

It is a reality of our world that young people primarily learn about sex through porn, and that children are accessing pornography online from an increasingly young age. My favourite parts of the play are when Amy loses her temper, or when Jenna’s voice shifts from the breathy high pitched tones she uses for the camera and her fans, into something a lot more real. Both Cabubas and Coffey do a remarkable job in showing an emotional depth through the peeling of layers away from their performative selves. In this way and many others, I think that director Margaret Thanos has done an excellent job. Every time I noticed even the smallest detail, it was rewarded in full with an explanation that never feels underthought. But I struggled to single out a clear message in the play.

Jenna’s character is both proud and elated with her work, but also speaks of her dehumanisation and the disregard of her boundaries while working in the industry. Clark plays Callum as strange, but ultimately endearing – a portrayal which is dissonant  with the fact that the character wants to have sex with a 15 year old, which is clearly unforgivable. Amy seeks to take control of her sexuality after the truly awful posting of a video of her online, but in my mind, this is a compromise that should never have to be made by a child. Thanos grapples with these facets of people and reality in a remarkable way, and I appreciate her exploration of this world.

Sex education and how we come by it, as well as how we as a society interact with pornography, will not soon become a lesser issue. Plays like these are an important means through which these ideas can be explored, understood, and hopefully bettered.

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