‘What’s the point in being free of chains, if we’re living in a cage?’ Sumudu Samarawickrama on Leah Shelton’s exhilarating attack on patriarchy, Bitch on Heat
When I saw Bitch on Heat, I went from the rustling, eerie darkness of a cold autumn night into the dark, close space of Theatre Works, only to find that autumnal eeriness inside, in a highly stylised form.
Bitch on Heat, performed and created by Leah Shelton (who is also responsible for the costume and set design), is, according the Theatre Works program, a one woman karaoke “critique of sexual politics in the age of implied consent”. It’s a risky proposition: if Shelton were not wholly spectacular, the whole thing would fail.
As we enter, there’s a pervasive, ominous sense of camp, due to the slightly too-loud music. A shocking clap of thunder and lightning begins the play, with a grandeur that befits the doom-laden story of Pandora, the first woman, made to be of service and obedient, but who could be neither.
A minimal staging of four Greek columns topped with topiary-filled urns surround a large white mountain, which eventually reveals itself to be Leah Shelton on a satin and lace covered circular bed that could have come from a Doris Day/ Rock Hudson sex romp.
There’s a strong sense that this work has been finessed over time, but it’s perhaps found its perfect form at Theatre Works. Ursula Martinez’ direction is fleet and precise. The sound and lighting design, by Kenneth Lyons and Jason Glenwright respectively, are integral to this show’s success and are seamlessly and masterfully done. Theatre Works has really put its resources into achieving Leah Shelton’s vision, and that vision creates a powerful, fierce work that challenges the audience’s relationship to the patriarchy that we all live in.
The sets evoke the show’s Classical Greek starting-point, and also clarify its limits and intentions. Bitch on Heat is a rebuke of Western patriarchy, dealing in transitions and metamorphoses: self-invention, mask-wearing, femininity’s constant changing from one to another, depending on what is required of her by society. The play transitions Shelton from woman to man, from aggressor to co-conspirator to aggressor to victim and back, in a dance of recurring motifs.
The set also transitions and conceals – Shelton’s various wigs and props are hidden inside these faux architectural supports. She is a master performer – her body is her vehicle of communication, pulling on puppeteering, dance, gymnastics and lip syncing to convey meaning.
Bitch on Heat starts with a Pandora who is an animated sex doll. In a smooth latex suit, blonde wig, prosthetic breasts and oversized lips open to receive, Shelton perfectly conveys the naivety and newness of her character. But curious Pandora cannot do as she is told and she opens the forbidden box, only to find herself inside it, as an actual blow-up doll.
Shelton endows her doll-Pandora with self reflection, and as the two dance sweetly together a transformation occurs. The doll strips Pandora of the drag of western femininity: first her big hair, then her lips, her immobile latex face. As the sweat drips from Shelton’s human face, she abruptly deflates the liberating doll-Pandora. It’s a stark and brutal moment which sets the tone for the rest of the night.
The show speeds through high octane juxtapositions, revealing the dangerous fabric of Western patriarchy. Shelton lip syncs variously to a dramatised re-telling of Greek myths; to porn and horror movies (a terrifying episode where the panting of a running victim becomes the panting of a woman in a rough sex scene); to Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and a mid 20th century audio guide to women dating in “sexually liberated” times.
The work owes a lot to drag and its attendant sense of camp, where artifice and stylised manner accentuate the poignancy and impact of the action.
The full-body latex second skin that Shelton wears in the opening section of the play is a stroke of pure genius – it enables Shelton to talk about how the patriarchy organises the naked female form without subjecting the actor to nudity herself, bypassing the voyeurism of the audience and forcing them to engage with the ideas and not the spectacle.
But this is upended midway through, when patriarchy is murdered and Shelton strips off her skin of latex and rubber tits. The sweating body stripped of its caricatured feminine parts becomes real and the implication is that, unmasked, it becomes less titillating.
As Shelton wipes her body with a singlet she’ll then wear, the audience is asked to acknowledge the reality of sweat in the crevasses of human buttocks: the female body’s actuality outside a framework of female desirability. It’s a challenge, and not just for the audience. This part is not supposed to be pretty; and yet it is pretty, because Shelton is white, slender and conventionally beautiful.
This speaks to the limits that the play sets out in its conceit: patriarchy is destructive not only to those women whom it finds desirable, nor just to those who buy what it’s selling. I wonder how the impact of that moment would change if the body belonged to a not-white, not-thin person. What would the resonances be?
Shelton’s now androgynous costume (briefs and a “wife beater”!) move the gymnastics of pole dancing into direct confrontation with its male gaze, sex-as-commodity beginnings. The body is still the focus, but instead of the dancing being something done to be watched, it is dancing which we incidentally witness. The change in focus is powerful. The pole dancing doesn’t signify anything beyond itself: not desire, not compliance, not possession. It is only about Shelton’s power, ability and skills, and it transcends its origin.
Shelton and Saffron Benner’s dramaturgy of an episode in which a disembodied male head on a pike transitions into a disembodied head in a music video, and then to a mouthpiece spouting Kant and finally back into Shelton’s body, is an adroit use of all the tools of theatre.
Not only are the transitions acute and masterfully performed, they rush by: Shelton seems to want to evoke meaning in the viewer, rather than for them to come at it cerebrally, using the tools of poetry or visual montage to generate meaning, rather than didactically presenting argument. The play’s speed of change chimes deeply.
In the final quarter of the work, the tempo slows. Pandora is buffeted on a storm in a deflating life raft and the audience is allowed time to reflect and engage once again with the critical part of memory. The work seems to gain resonance in this lull, becoming no longer just a sensory experience, but reflective.
The show’s conversation with a 20th century idea of femaleness ends with the only spoken words: “Shut the Fuck Up”. It suggests that at least now we can see the patriarchy for what it is, and that we can push back against what it is telling us to do.
But this doesn’t really change the fact that we live in a society created by it. What’s the point in being free of chains, if we’re living in a cage? Our foremother Pandora condemned and then freed us; but we dismissed her, destroyed her meaning until we went through the journey ourselves, looked back at the detritus and re-evaluated what we discarded with a new sympathy. At the last, Pandora rediscovers the deflated doll-Pandora and tenderly cradles her as she exits stage left.
Bitch on Heat is an insightful and sharp condemnation of men’s predation of women in our society. Although it comes from a privileged, Western point of view, its astuteness has value.
Perhaps it’s limited by its inherent identity: there are ways that the femme is preyed upon in our global patriarchy that has nothing to do with attractiveness, sexually alluring bodies, compliant femininity, womanness or even femaleness. After all, the most vulnerable demographic to patriarchy’s violence are trans women of colour, and a proper dismantling of that violence needs to take that into account. Just like those four columns onstage, patriarchy doesn’t hold up the structure we live in by itself – whiteness and colonialism also order this heteronormative and cisgendered culture of ours.
There needs to be a Bitch on Heat 2 that expands the whole shebang. But until then, see Bitch on Heat now. You won’t regret it, though it might cut you.
Bitch on Heat created and performed by Leah Shelton; directed by Ursula Martinez; conceptual collaborator Daniel Evans; producer Alison Halit; sound design Kenneth Lyons; lighting design Jason Glenwright; costume and set design Leah Shelton; dramaturge Saffron Benner; choreographic collaborator Liesel Zink; production manager Christine Felmingham; voiceover Hugh Parker; voiceover recording Guy Webster. Theatre Works. Until May 19. Bookings
Theatre Works is wheelchair accessible.
Adult themes, coarse language, sexual references, nudity, loud noises, smoke machine, strobe effects