The decision by Creative Scotland to withdraw funding to twenty art organisations this year will be, for many, their death sentence. The process behind their decision has now been revealed as flawed and two members of their board have since resigned. The subsequent public outcry led to the reinstatement of funding to the two companies that worked with children, but there has been no reprieve for David Leddy’s Fire Exit theatre company. As a result, Fire Exit’s latest production The Last Bordello, may be its last.
It’s 1971, and Mitri, a Palestinian freedom fighter visits a brothel in the Gaza strip. He wants to become a man before he dies. Unfortunately for Mitri, it won’t be that simple – the last bordello is scheduled for demolition the next morning by the Israeli authorities. Instead of losing his virginity Mitri finds himself playing the leading role in a ‘sacred ritual’ led by the bordello’s Madame. This involves each of the whores regaling the rest (and us) with their life stories. It’s the Canterbury Tales but with fruitier language – the characters (‘the virgin’, ‘the sailor’, ‘the charwoman’, ‘the mother superior’, and ‘the moral compass’) are clichés designed to deceive. With each story a layer of truth is revealed until the play turns completely in on itself and we realise that nothing was as it first seemed.
Threaded through these stories is the ghost of Jean Genet, revered by the characters as ‘The Master’, who may or may not be sat with us in the audience. There are many clues and references to Genet’s life – not least the sense that the whole thing might be a tissue of lies – but to reveal more would spoil the play’s shocking resolution. At the end I was left unsure that I had fully unravelled the plot, but certain that Leddy was much, much smarter than me.
The complexities of the story are elevated by the beauty of the staging: Becky Minto’s set is a sexy mix of heavenly boudoir and a Pet Shop Boys video from 1986. Everything is swagged in virginal white muslin, with occasional shocking splashes of red. The backdrop is a neon slash that later becomes a crucifix. Scene changes are marked by a burst of disco lights and deafening music, which cut abruptly once the actors have repositioned. The performers are all excellent, notably Irene Allan as The Madame, whose wit and slightly aristocratic bearing are both a clue and a distraction from the ‘truth’.
The mixture of glamour and squalor is potent, literally so in one scene – The Sailor’s party piece is to drink a champagne flute filled with his clients’ semen (I did wonder briefly how many clients that would require). This was one of the milder images in a play that included references to enjoying paedophilia and rape.
The nature of this content won’t make it any easier for Fire Exit to win fresh funding, but there is no denying that The Last Bordello is intelligent, intense and challenging theatre that deserves an audience. The decision to withdraw cash from an internationally recognised and critically lauded theatre company is in direct conflict with Creative Scotland‘s remit to encourage and promote Scottish talent in the arts. Leddy has been doing extraordinary work for over fifteen years, and despite meagre resources Fire Exit has never made a loss – it really is mind-boggling. Jean Genet wrote about ‘the ecstasy of betrayal’. Thanks to Creative Scotland this is something that Leddy and we can all experience.
Photos courtesy of Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.