Breaking the Silence: Confronting Sexual Violence on Stage
Next week, Hamilton House is hosting a one-off performance of Foreign Body, a brave, solo piece of physical theatre by Imogen Butler-Cole. I spoke to Imogen about the challenging issues the play confronts: sexual assault, forgiveness and the possibility of healing.
Foreign Body is an intense and intimate piece of theatre that centres on a topic rarely dealt with in such a direct and fearless way: the experience of trying to recover from sexual assault. When I spoke to Imogen over Skype two weeks ago about the motivations for making the play and its emotional impact on her, she remarked that the piece had started from another angle:
I started out actually making a play about something a bit different. It was about Cassandra, from the Greek myth: using her as a metaphor for the voicelessness of women around sexual violence, the silencing of women. And it wasn’t until quite a way into that process that I uncovered the material, or the fact of my assaults, because I’d suppressed them for 10 or 12 years and forgotten about them.
Through her work with the Forgiveness Project, a charity that works with both survivors and perpetrators of violent crime, war and assault, Imogen managed to contact one of the perpetrators of one of her assaults, resulting in a piece which is told entirely through physical movement and audio recordings of conversations between Imogen and her assailant:
“We had a conversation in which he took responsibility for what had happened, and that struck me as being quite unique, and he agreed to be interviewed for the project as well. So we then had this story which was really inspiring, really different and really interesting.”
As well as drawing on these experiences, many of the themes that inform the piece stem from Imogen’s experiences working in India, Bangladesh and Brazil:
I spent two and a half years in India working in theatre, and a lot of the work I did there was with women’s organisations. There was an organisation working with sex workers, and they make theatre about their stories. There was an organisation in Calcutta that works with children who live in red-light districts, and they do all sorts of creative explorations of the issues that affect their lives.
During this period, Imogen was also inspired by a play called Nirbhaya which dealt with the gang-rape of a young woman, Jyoti Singh Pandey, on a bus in Delhi in 2012. She later died of her injuries and the horrific incident sparked a huge uprising of Indian women protesting rampant levels of sexual assault and the impunity of their attackers.
Imogen’s shift into physical theatre came about through studying Capoeira in Brazil, and later studying at Lispa — the London International School of Performing Arts -currently based in Berlin. Following her time in India, Imogen found that physical theatre was the perfect vehicle for dealing with the topic, and also found that physical theatre could transcend language barriers, and be understood in different cultural contexts.
Imogen is hopeful that the play will contribute to the dialogue around sexual violence, which she feels is woefully understood and even normalised in popular culture, particularly in film, TV, and gaming. The recent furore surrounding allegations of sexual assault made against US presidential candidate Donald Trump, and his own bragging that as a rich and powerful man “you can do anything” to women has recently served to highlight the point: “That thing with Donald Trump is actually at the heart of it because what it proves is that a man can stand up in public and admit to having assaulted women and then just dismiss it as ‘locker room talk’”. As such, the main aim of Foreign Body is:
“to de-stigmatise the dialogue around sexual violence, because I really think that we need to talk about it. It’s very stigmatised, taboo, we still don’t have these conversations. And as long as we don’t have these conversations, it seems to me that, it’s going to go on happening. And it’s only really when we bring it out in the open that we can take steps towards preventing that kind of thing happening.”