Erin Shields, currently playwright in residence at Tarragon Theatre, trained as an actor in Great Britain. She won the 2011 Governor General’s Award for her play If We Were Birds that was produced by Tarragon in 2010, a play that garnered two Dora Awards. That play was inspired by both recent political events, the use of rape as a weapon of war in former Yugoslavia, and one of the greatest sources for the literary imagination of our culture, Ovid’s poem, “Tereus, Procne and Philomela”, in his magnum opus Metamorphoses. Shield’s play dealt with the subject of rape and revenge and tried to reproduce on stage the recurring nightmare of Polly in Rachel Urquhart’s The Visionist. As much as Polly’s imagination takes flight as if we were birds, Polly in her recurring memory cannot escape the experience: “Over and over, back and forth, he came at her, left her weak, made her sick with nausea: the knowledge that he would eventually touch her.”
Soliciting Temptation is a new play by Erin Shields currently showcasing at the Tarragon Theatre. The two-actor drama deals with another perversion of sex, sexual tourism, in an unnamed country that could be Thailand. Erin has evidently written four other plays that have earned or been nominated for awards, but I have not seen any of them. My wife and I saw Soliciting Temptation yesterday evening. Tarragon is renowned for nurturing and developing young playwrights. The risk is that some of those plays turn out to be disasters. The delight is that most are not.
Well before the play starts, instead of helping create an atmosphere. we are annoyed by the noise of traffic outside the hotel room, noise which irritates rather than informs the action and which is heard indifferent to when the shutters or the windows are opened to catch a breath of air in the stifling heat or closed to shut out the noise. We are told about the heat and see evidence of it on the john’s sweaty shirt, but we never really feel it. This is not a difficult task for a playwright or director to convey – see any decent production of Tennessee William’s A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And what is the smoke about on the Tarragon stage – a hint of smog? By the time the play starts, we are already in a distrustful mood.
The play opens with the man lying prone and face down on the bed exhausted by the heat unrelieved by the fan and the air conditioning for neither is working. The setting is a cheap hotel room and the man is in an evidently Asian country on a business trip. He is irritable and sweaty. He gets up, perambulates around, pours himself a drink – scotch, rye whiskey, bourbon – I could not tell from the bottle even though I was close to the stage. The point, of course, is that my curiosity had wandered off into an irrelevant path. The man phones down to the desk and in frustration at the lack of comprehension of plain English by the hotel clerk, lodges his complaint about the lack of cool air, only to be interrupted by a knock on the hotel door. Why was I not drawn immediately into the man’s frustration, his impatience, his irritability, his frustration, the intolerable heat, and most of all, the anticipation and expectation of what was to come?
The man is large – both in girth and height. He is pasty-faced. He is also going bald. His best years are behind him. A girl enters in a sari. She is small, lithe and dark, and has a look and posture that conveys both fear and wariness. She does not present herself as an experienced prostitute. The man – always unnamed as is the girl – is gentle with her as he invites the girl into the room and tries to talk to her, comfort her and get her to relax. Just as we are drawn into accepting the situation of a man who has solicited the services of a child prostitute – though we never are quite sure of whether what we see before us is a child or just a small Asian woman – the play turns sideways. The girl, who had not heretofore spoken, speaks perfect English and turns the power differential in reverse and begins and emerges like a butterfly from her shy cocoon. No, not a butterfly, but a moth beating her wings in rapid accusations against the light bulb that has just been ignited in the man. He has been entrapped. And he panics.
Though I did not find the sudden switch to be credible, I was truly taken by surprise and the shock covered up for a short time my incredulity. The metamorphosis of a retiring and frightened young girl into a fiery extremely articulate and self-assured harpy on a mission of either blackmail or exposure – we are not sure which – works to a point. On reflection, it seems clear that the shock value replaced the need of developing the sexual seduction scene as the pretend child prostitute unwinds her sari, hangs it on a peg and, in panties and a short cotton top, approaches the man. Only much, much later in the play do we get a suggestion about why the improvised explosive device (IOD) goes boom when he touches his face to her bare belly.
As the play progressed and the power relationship was inverted, instead of being allowed to develop in any one direction, it kept switching. I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The play lost me and I never again entered into the dramatic tension in spite of how well the actors performed. The portrait of child prostitution in relationship to a businessman becoming a sex tourist – we never get an explanation of why the playwright chose a business man instead of an actual sex tourist given that the choice somehow mitigates the crime not only in the john’s own mind but in the viewer’s since intentionality and deliberation are mitigated. This happens even though the pretend prostitute challenges the apologia of relief rather than intention by noting that the man, as evidently a successful business man, deliberately chose to go to a cheap hotel. However, we had already been convinced that the man was not a high flyer but a middling foreign management expert. In fact, we never are able to reconcile his profession with his behaviour or his words, and are less and less convinced about his role as the play progresses. One inversion of power succeeds another but we are never allowed to see or experience the development of any one of them.
The problems are myriad. We never become convinced that we are hearing the words of agents on the stage. We become more and more convinced that these are the words of the playwright rather than the characters. This is also true of the arbitrary actions and sudden switches which come off as manipulations rather than demonstrations of agency. In the man, for example, lyricism and ordinary speech are mixed in a totally unconvincing manner and his switches from abjection to condescension, from affability to banal repulsiveness, from a reactionary determination to call his daughter a hairdresser rather than a stylist to his progressive apologia about the rights of sexual workers, are just incongruencies that never mesh.
All the time we are bothered by the question the man repeatedly asks – how old are you? The woman is never credible enough as a child prostitute but, surprisingly, becomes less credible as a university student and has absolutely no credibility in her final role which, just to utter it, would not only be a real spoiler, but would immediately give away why the play fails to work in the end. A play has to be magical. A play has to invite your entry into a world you have not or barely adequately experienced. Instead, this play pushes you away as it progresses and increasingly relies on extraneous tricks to propel the action – no, not even action – just excessive verbiage on stage.
In the director’s notes in the program, Andrea Donaldson writes (I reproduce the squib almost in full): “Soliciting Temptation harnesses so much of what I love about Erin’s writing: her wit, her depth of inquiry, her ability to create relationships that are at once intimate and expansive, her capacity to pair poetic language with the everyday, to lift comedy from the dark, and to probe our deepest fear and most taboo desires. Her plays demand something from us. I am drawn to this play because it not only grapples with essential questions in an unexpected way, but it also utters what ought not to be voiced, let alone thought. It is ruthless in its exploration of human morality and confronts us with questions that challenge our own perceptions of who we are. What is it to be good? What is it to be bad? Am I good? Am I bad? And how do I live with myself? For me, theatre can provide a container for our unmanaged or intolerable thoughts and demand we face them – silently, kinetically. In the dark and the presence of others, we are simultaneously protected and exposed. We count on playwrights like Erin Shields to write the unspeakable, and on actors to embody these words – to be us at our best and us at our worst…to examine the mystifying terrain of the human landscape.”
The blurb is as overwritten as the play. I heard and, in replaying the play in my mind, found no wit. The jokes – such as a play on sweater as a man sweating and as a piece of clothing – are presumably deliberately unfunny. The inquiry into the sex trade lacked depth. The pasty middle-aged business man from a western country and the pretend prostitute alternate in their roles as purveyors of power never really develop a relationship between them. There is no magic. There is no intimacy. Only endless talk. Talk, which instead of integrating poetry and everyday language, stretches credulity when the management efficiency expert and solicitor of the sexual favours speaks. The play never touches our taboos though it professes to do so – and never probes even our shallowest fears – such as being caught in a socially compromising situation – let alone any deep ones. Any “essential” questions connected with sexual tourism are not only lost in the litter of rationalizations and counter-attacks, they never go anywhere near what is either unthought or unvoiced. The play never challenges who we are as we sit in the theatre wishing that either the pretend prostitute or the affable but befuddled john would finally get up the gumption to just shut up and leave. Certainly, there is not a single moral question about sexual tourism that is explored as the play wanders sideways into anaphylactic shocks and psychological discoveries and confessions. Though valiantly and often subtly performed by both Derek Boyes as the man and Mirian Fernandes as the girl – they are the two best elements in the production – they were unable to save the play from the endless blather.
Shields has been quoted as describing the play as follows: “I initially started writing this play because I was incensed at the rise in child sex tourism in developing countries. As I began to write, I realized that what I wanted to talk about was the power dynamics between young and old, rich and poor, male and female. Soliciting Temptation is about child sex tourism, but it is also a play about entrapment and desperate longing, about sexual suppression and sexual awakening, about the desire to expose and be exposed.” Unfortunately, the multiplicity of alsos never get sorted out or integrated but are merely attached to one another as a series of vignettes.
I wanted to learn why the play was such a botch-up. I found that Shields had a blog though I only found one opening entry – possibly because of my own incapacity than the absence of any future entries. Shields started out by writing about her suspicions about blogging: “The concept of blogging has never appealed to me. It has always appeared to me to be some sort of self-aggrandizing confessional; a forum in which people broadcast their mundane, often pedestrian and rambling thoughts; a place for personal obsessions and anecdotes about children, cooking, travelling or dating rituals; an editorial seeking a global audience to satiate the ego of a single individual; a place in which written form matters as much as thoughtful content – not at all and for that matter, let’s not worry about spelling or punctuation or formal conventions of the written language but more than that, more than all that, it seemed to be a format that was incredibly personal and if I’m to be completely honest, I don’t care that much about the personal lives of strangers. Or their obsessions. Or the obsessions of their pets. I don’t want to read other peoples’ diaries. And, more to the point, I have no desire to share my own.”
Though Shields goes on to correct that initial impression to learn that, “blogs are as diverse as the people who write them in both content and form” she has already revealed that she doesn’t much “care that much about the personal lives of strangers”. Nor does she really want to share her deepest fears and desires. Perhaps that is the core problem. She has learned the art of acting and playwriting as a trickster and a fixter rather than as an explorer of the depths of the human soul. Even though she expresses the desire for “form and content that stretch my imagination, my own facility with language and ideas…stories that transport me to other places, take me into the lives of people I don’t know in neighbourhoods in my own city or countries I’ve never been to…to think and feel and have my own assumptions about the world affirmed by some stories and challenged by others, [to] want a transformative experience,” her opposite tendency to be disinterested in the lives of strangers or even an in-depth exploration of her own deepest thoughts and passions may be at the root of this failure as a piece of drama.
On the other hand, I cannot blame her. She has a new child and the magic of a newborn is magic enough. The stage just cannot compete.