The publication last year of the authorised French translation of Fifty Shades of Grey coincided with the re-release – this time in a 60th anniversary edition – of Anne Desclos's literary prize-winning erotic novel, Story of O. The French were all but gleeful in their derision. Compared to O, EL James was described as savourless, glossy porno-chic, and the "the greatest scam". The Anglo-American erotic mind, it was claimed, was evidently "stunted".
This is much the same argument we see in outline in this latest, wildly imaginative stage adaptation of Desclos's pornographic fantasia.
Conceived as a long love letter to the writer and publisher Jean Paulhan, Desclos's Story of O, describes the willing initiation of a beautiful young fashion photographer into a brutal life of sexual slavery, servicing both her lover, René, and a mysterious English aristocrat, Sir Stephen, O's cruel instructor in self-destruction.
In The Rabble's extravagant and avid and genuinely provocative production what we get is not so much Desclos's pornographic masterpiece as a critical reinterpretation, informed principally by Susan Sontag's 1967 essay 'The Pornographic Imagination'. This is the essay in which Sontag argues for the liberating potential of high-art pornography, commending Desclos's erotic masterpiece as an example of demonic and original insight gleaned in self annihilation, and lauding the small circle of French intellectuals who take this potential seriously.
Indeed, Sontag's enthusiastic programme is so much present here that at times this show appears more a theatrical representation of the essayist's dazzling advocacy than O's rather sombre progress toward absolute objectification.
It opens with guttural, animal noises, the basic bodily response to desire. Mary Helen Sassman – O – is grunting. Then words emerge. French words. From French we gradually find English, and English words, we are told, can only be pornography.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths, the queered masque for Sir Stephen, explains that – at least in English – we have no word for erotographia, the writing of desire, we have only pornographia, or porn, which, we are told, is an "inscription on the body of the whore".
Here we leap like an express train into the abyss, transforming the moment before impact into particoloured streamers and fairy floss. It is an intensely visual experience. The stage is ranked with carousel horses and the floor spread with crushed stone and strewn with roses, somewhat like the floor of a bullring, an association recalling that other, even darker, French masterpiece Bataille's Histoire d'oeil.
From this it proceeds through a series of landscape orgasms, scenes building then collapsing, some more satisfying – compositionally, dramatically, erotically – than others, but none of them ultimate or exhaustive. O continues her trials of humiliation and physical objectification in a vigorous carnival spirit.
The lighting is lurid, rapid, and the sound design a pealing exaltation, and very, very loud. At times we get a kind of erotic or abusive choreography suggesting the book's unremittingly grave mood ‑ repetitions on the theme of submission. At other times the approach is more lateral – the cast comparing "sex faces", Gary Abrahams masturbating into a handful of ice cream, or parodying an audition for The Crucible. Different pornographies and registers of erotic theatre are run against one another. The digital porn revolution is given its sordid due with the use of a hand-held camera to bring us the close-ups.
The stage overflows with images – fantastic and domestic, rolling pins and ironing boards – dildos and branding irons. Rape is absolved in French pop music-via-Mad Men and unicorns emerge from bondage fantasies.
Take seriously the MTC's warning. This show does contain graphic depictions of sexual violence. There is scant modesty. Nevertheless, although the tortures of the story are not shied from – the whippings and the brandings – most of the violence is recognisably stage violence, or a theatrical substitution. The pornography, on the other hand, is unambiguously pornographic.
Also take seriously the company's name. Their method is absolutely that of a rabble. They don't deal in logical narrative progressions or psychologically coherent characterisation. Don't expect this to be the "story" – in any convention sense – of O. There is a parodic Sadeian element in their rebellious piling up of outrages. And don't expect all the humiliations undergone by Sassman – and later by Dana Miltins as Jacqueline – to be equally moving, or even funny. While many scene are confronting, there is much also that seems to develop the spectacle hardly at all, and to make little impression on the audience, being so desensitised. Sometimes you wonder at all the effort. Yet the cumulative effect is of a constant, urgent striving against the limits of a conventional theatrical imagination, of trying, as Sontag puts it, "to make a fresh way of talking at the most serious, ardent, and enthusiastic level".
O is completed not in a single act of martyrdom, but by stations of submission toward her desired effacement. Or happiness. Faithful to Desclos's controversial finale, O is not killed, even if, by the end, the audience is willing her execution. The gun is removed from the stage, unfired. We fall back within the limits of body and scene and break the progression from lover to whore to animal to object. It gives rise to a tender, crowning moment of pathos as Emily Milledge serenades in childlike accents the bestialised O.
When Sontag published her essay in 1967, Story of O was taking the English-speaking world by storm. I wasn't as big as EL James, but it was the kind of book, like Fifty Shades, you might see women reading on the train or devouring in a single afternoon.
O is raped, beaten, chained, whipped, hung from a pole, mutilated and ultimately reduced to a singular point of inexpressive slavish devotion. The heroine of 50 Shades, Ana, on the other hand, is lightly bound with a silk tie, for a while, and spanked. Her confinement is less rigorous. And yet, reduced as she is, as an artistic creation, O ranges over a much vaster map of human experience, and articulates a more adventurous imaginative spirit.
But there is no straightforward comparison in this adaptation. There are no easy answers. Sontag's essay was written almost 50 years ago and her proselytising message has been complicated here by creators Kate Davis and Emma Valente, suggesting some doubt at the promise of renewal in degradation. This is after all the internet age in which exploitation, not degradation, is the dominant motif of pornography.
Highly recommended, with a warning.