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Girl in Suitcase, Telegraph Hill Festival 2016

24 April 2016

Two vivid red footprints remained on the white sheet. Ten perfect toes and two perfect soles, all drenched in human blood, formed a lasting impression of ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ at the 2016 Telegraph Hill Festival. I was a ticket-holder and, briefly, an impromptu participant at the Telegraph Hill performance in 2015; this year I was significantly more embroiled.

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Esther is Girl in Suitcase, but she has reinvented and refreshed her signature work of performance art theatre unceasingly since its inception in 2009. She has collaborated with many talented people during that time, yet now she asked to work with me. I had reservations; I’m a life model and a nude art performer, but not a performance artist or actor. It was an offer, however, I could hardly refuse.

Preparation

In the weeks ahead of show time – 19 March – we discussed concepts and practice. It was a fascinating, immersive process to conjure with so many ideas and watch as they transformed into something tangible. By the end of our late February vacation in Venice, Esther had coalesced the strongest elements – some classic, others brand new – into a solid, coherent whole. Over the next fortnight she fashioned our script.

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It was to be a play of a dozen segments. I was required to learn the lines of one; read lines for another; and be a physical presence towards the end. I had not tried learning lines since a primary school play almost forty years ago. Lacking a formal disciplined approach, I found it a struggle, and could only look on with huge admiration as Esther recited with passion her entire hour-long performance.

Upon the brink

On the day itself, our first challenge was to transform the erstwhile Old Library space in the Telegraph Hill Centre; gaining access at 4pm, we had three hours to turn an empty hall into a playhouse. Chairs were put out, a stage assembled, screens stood in front of doors and windows, a backdrop taped to the wall, props and art equipment placed in readiness, and a music desk set up with laptop and speakers.

All appeared to go well, although I was sorely vexed by inconsiderate parents who let their three little kids run feral around us whilst we were trying to work. Fresh air in the adjacent park eventually cooled me down. Esther, meanwhile, remained astoundingly serene. The early arrival of ticket holders meant we had no time for one last rehearsal. The moment to perform had come.

Segment 1 – suitcase / bandages

Our audience was hubbubbing into its seats; our friend Alessandra was poised at the laptop, ready to make music; and I was in the kitchen area wrapping naked Esther in bandages. A last kiss and hug, then I covered her with a large coat and escorted her to a suitcase on stage. She climbed in, I closed the lid, and we waited for everybody to quieten. When the time was right, Esther emerged…

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No music accompanied the entrance; this was one woman’s raw ritual struggle to free herself from her entanglement, whilst sharing with the audience intimacies of her past. “I was born wrapped in many layers…” – I’d watched this scene develop, and it was a joy now to see it for real – “a migrant’s migrant… it might be hell for a while… learning about sex… in many circumstances… You now have a chance to draw me.

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Segment 2 – model and tutor

The audience was encouraged to try drawing Esther’s poses throughout the play, and no more so than in the ‘model and tutor’ scene – a Girl in Suitcase favourite. I was to play a dodgy old-fashioned art tutor who objectifies his model, and in doing so makes himself ridiculous. I had been given free rein to tweak a few lines to my own style, but essentially it was a familiar section. I just had to avoid being genuinely ridiculous.

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I had recited these lines to myself so many times, over and over during the preceding weeks, yet even now I managed to have a minor brain freeze shortly after beginning. It seemed to last forever but, watching it again on video, I see it was merely a couple of seconds. Tricks of the mind. Once back on track I held my nerve, and Esther held her gritted pose to the bitter end.

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Segment 3 – g-string and stilettos

I departed, leaving Esther to speak of her objectification and the hypocrisy of a world that sexualises nakedness and then feigns to be scandalised by it: “No breastfeeding in public! No nipples on Facebook! No nudity before nine!” – these words were made especially apt by the presence of a woman breastfeeding her baby in the audience. I returned briefly to chide Esther with legal guidelines.

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Stoically hearing my insistence that she leave something to the imagination, Esther duly dressed… albeit in possibly the most revealing underwear that money can buy, with fetish stilettos, lipstick and a tickling feather. Thus she posed while Alessandra played ‘Sheela Na Gig’ by PJ Harvey – “you exhibitionist!” Both Esther and I had been indie kids in our very early days and still harbour a soft spot for Polly Jean.

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Segment 4 – violence

Here is the news.” Now for weightier stuff. Esther put down the feather, sat by a desk and read her bulletins: under-representation of women among world leaders, domestic abuse and rape in the UK, sexual abuse in childhood, hate crime against transgender people, women victims of honour killings, female genital mutilation. Meanwhile, I took away her erotic clothes and stood over her, toying with tools of violence.

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The denouement saw Esther look up, as if noticing me for the first time, and direct a steely, belittling rebuke of dismissal. It may have garnered a snort or two of laughter, but the message contained in this scene was core to the whole performance. Esther had previously read the piece at a women-only Spirited Bodies event, where models felt quite moved by its juxtaposition with their own personal bodily concerns.

Segment 5 – bridal veil

Donning a white bridal veil, and picking up the knife that I’d left behind, Esther recited her vows before commencing a soliloquy of empowerment. “What do we sisters share underneath… this power, this pleasure… repressing, oppressing and hunting cunt… woman is too big to be boxed up… when she could be roaring and crashing through the universe!

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Throughout this scene, and those that preceded and would follow, images and videos were captured by a photographer friend – www.instagram.com/smokysushi – who’d kindly offered her services in exchange for support with a project of her own. When the monologue was at its end, Esther struck a suitably dramatic pose for the life drawers; cue ‘Girl on Fire’ by Alicia Keys.

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Segment 6 – movement

You now have the opportunity to draw a movement pose. I will begin to dance, slowly at first, but becoming faster.” This was Esther’s favourite part of the performance, I’m sure. As ‘Free Money’ by Patti Smith belted out, she abandoned herself more and more to the moment, becoming ever more free and wild… yet I missed it all as I was busy changing in readiness for the next segment.

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Segment 7 – recycling

Ahead of the most dramatic scene, Esther – breathless from her dance – delivered a short monologue on recycling. “I try to use everything to the limit; old food, clothes, junk I find in the street, blood, boyfriends…” – the last bit being where I came in. If I was to be a recycled boyfriend, I suggested this would be most effective if I returned naked and meekly crumpled up to serve as a bench.

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Sitting upon my back, Esther talked about things she uses to an obsessive extreme because she can’t bear to waste anything. Like much of her performance work, this piece was highly autobiographical; I can personally vouch that she lives her art with unquestionable integrity. The final item on her list was blood. Esther does not waste her blood. Anyone of a squeamish disposition should look away now.

Segment 8 – covered with blood

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She stood, put her fingers inside herself and removed her Mooncup. From my folded position I could hear only a delicate suctioning squelch. “I had hoped that I would be bleeding today, but came on just over a week ago so there’s not much left here, but fortunately I saved my earlier blood from the week and I’m going to make art with it, and share the secrets and the smells of my old menses blood with you.

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As ‘You are the blood’ by Sufjan Stevens played to a hushed hall, Esther poured menstrual blood over her legs. Much ran off onto the stage, so she gathered it afresh with her palms and smeared it around her skin. When satisfied, she sat down on me in a defiant pose for the artists. After a couple of minutes she stood with one wet foot on my back. Her bloodening was captured beautifully on video.

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Segment 9 – body painting

Having created art with her own blood, Esther next invited her audience to participate in this process by applying paint to her body. After the discord of Sufjan Stevens, the gentle guitar of ‘The winds that bring you home’ by Estas Tonne lilted whilst one, two or three at a time, people stepped forward to take a brush and make their marks. These were serene moments.

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Segment 10 – drawing the audience

Whilst body painting has become a regular feature at Girl in Suitcase performances, possibly the favourite audience moment is when Esther invites them to step up and pose naked themselves. We wondered whether one or two people might have come here simply to enjoy participating in this bit. Esther vacated the stage, and no fewer the nine people came forward to join me in posing.

As Esther became the artist she asked her five female and five male models to show their exhilaration. ‘True Faith’ by New Order kicked in. I raised my arms as I often do for a 5-minute standing pose, but I suspect the chaps next to me who did likewise slowly came to regret it as the track played on. Nonetheless, I think everybody loved their moment of shared nude performance joy.

Segment 11 – competitive women

After our naked ensemble returned to their clothes, Esther addressed her audience one last time. “All this empowerment! All this energy! All this freedom!” In a closing monologue from the heart, she shared personal fears: “We women have more power than we’ve ever had in recent times, and yet I worry about what I might lose – what might be given away, slip away or be taken away.

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It was rather heart-wrenching for me to watch this unique woman that I love dearly, in the penultimate act of a powerful performance, standing strong in a war paint of blood and art, sharing so openly her fragility and self-doubt: “I worry more about how I might fall behind – how others blossom while I remain tied in knots… I have found freedom from the world; now I must find freedom from myself.

Segment 12 – rope / suitcase

And so to the final act. Having tied herself in knots metaphorically, Esther invited two women from the audience to rope her physically before she returned to her suitcase. Fittingly, the final piece of music was the beautiful ‘Sanvean’ by Lisa Gerrard. For me, this track has become the definitive sound of Girl in Suitcase. It never ceases to have a moving effect.

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Esther descended to the ordinary piece of luggage from which such an extraordinary performance had emerged an hour earlier. When she was curled up inside, I walked past slowly and lowered the lid. The last bars of Sanvean played out, to be followed immediately by a din of applause. Esther rose and shared her own appreciation with an audience that had engaged with her performance throughout.

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In the aftermath

Esther and I, both still nude and bloody, mingled with her audience and chatted with friends. The original idea had been to record video interviews but, come the moment, Esther rightly felt that it was better for everyone simply to relax with glasses of wine and enjoy being in good company. We took greatest pleasure from seeing drawings that had been produced throughout the evening.

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Slowly people departed, with the wonderful Alessandra being last to leave. Despite no preparation, she had done a flawless job at the sound desk – and then went the extra mile in cleaning away most of our mess – a true friend. Esther and I hadn’t wanted the evening to end, but the time had now come; we switched off the lights and lowered the shutters on a great occasion.

With all the paraphernalia of the event now rammed into the suitcase, we trundled off down Kitto Road to get a bus home. No showbiz glamour here; this was performance art: heart-on-sleeve, raw and bloody, honest and real. But the Girl in Suitcase journey doesn’t end at a south London bus stop. Not when she could be roaring and crashing through the universe…

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  1. Returning to a One Woman show – Girl in Suitcase

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