Nudity on stage: the naked truth

Published in BBC Culture on February 23, 2016

There’s nothing like the promise of naked flesh to shift tickets. So twigged Mrs Laura Henderson, owner of an ailing West End theatre in the 1930s – and she also got around the stage censor by promising that her cast of nude young ladies wouldn’t move a muscle.

The Windmill soon became the most popular theatre in town, its static, classical tableaux of de-robed lovelies proving more of a draw than any song-and-dance routine. Bare bottoms, it turned out, meant bums on seats – and the theatre was the only one not to close during World War Two.

This story was told in the British film Mrs Henderson Presents, starring Judi Dench, in 2005; now, it’s shimmied onto the stage in London in an all-new musical version by Terry Johnson. Yes, there is full-frontal nudity – even if the men in the cast have to bare-all first, in a token nod to gender equality. And the musical suggests that during WWII, beleaguered Brits were buoyed by the sight of bosoms, a show-must-go-on defiance equating to the plucky British ‘Blitz spirit’.

Mrs Henderson Presents has been mostly well-received by critics; while there’s the odd salacious bit of thigh-rubbing (the Daily Mail called it “phwoarsome”), most saw it as charmingly old-fashioned, an example of the erotic innocence of a bygone era – even if girls’ singing about how empowering stripping is has raised a fair few eyebrows.

Still, how far we have come: time was when nudity on stage was deeply shocking. As late as 1968 the Lord Chamberlain, the theatrical censor, ruled the stalls, ensuring there were no naughty bits on display or corrupting ideas discussed. But when theatrical censorship finally came to an end, its demise was celebrated in style: the very next night, the musical Hair opened in the West End – and included one infamously eye-opening scene.

The hippy rock-musical saw the cast get their kit off at the end of the first half, emerging in the altogether from beneath a giant sheet. Hair was an instant hit – even if the nudity, as well as the show’s explicit scenes of drug-taking and its anti-Vietnam War message, angered some critics.

The ‘obscenity squad’

Another show to take advantage of the end of censorship was the revue Oh! Calcutta!, which in 1969 staged bawdy sketches and erotic dances, after the entire cast stripped off in the first scene. It was conceived as a money-making bit of mischief by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan; he enlisted the likes of Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard and John Lennon to add an avant-garde air to his juvenile joke. Even at the time, its tittering titillation was seen by many as old-fashioned rather than sexually liberating – but the show also caused a serious scandal, seen by conservative commentators as a symptom of the moral degradation ushered in by the swinging ‘60s.

Amid a press furore, there were demands for it to be shut down – led by the right-wing Dowager Lady Birdwood, who called it ‘grossly obscene’. Undercover coppers went to see the nude romp three times (was that really necessary?), and called for the Attorney General to close the show. But an expert panel, made up of headmistresses, a vicar and a law professor, were secretly sent to see the show; they found its wobbly bits harmless, and the show went on. And on – it ran for a decade in the West End.

But the theatre soon found a more vocal opponent in Mary Whitehouse, who from the early 1970s led the charge against a permissive society. In 1980, Whitehouse took particular umbrage at Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain, which featured a brief scene where a Druid priest is raped by a Roman solider.

The obscenity squad had no problem with the play, which was staged at the National Theatre, but Whitehouse (who refused to even watch the offending show) was persistent. The director, Michael Bogdanov, was issued with a writ accusing him of having “procured an act of gross indecency” on the stage, under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. But at a trial at the Old Bailey in 1982, the case collapsed spectacularly. A witness claimed to have seen “the tip of the penis” – but it turned out he had a seat so far back in the auditorium that he hadn’t realised he was actually only seeing… a thumb. The power of the imagination, eh?

‘Theatrical Viagra’

Yet the ability of stage nudity to shock has often been enthusiastically embraced by actors; it’s a chance for them to, ahem, lay themselves bare, to very demonstrably give their all to a part. King Lear is a canonical role that, in modern productions, often sees actors taking the line “off, off you lendings, come unbutton here” to its fullest conclusion of full-frontal nudity. Ian Holm sparked the trend, getting naked as he raved on the heath in Richard Eyre’s production at the National in 1997. Quite some fuss was made of it, with reviewers enjoying the chance to get a penis joke into a review of Shakespearean tragedy.

Ian McKellen also went for the big reveal in a RSC production in 2007. The ensuing media uproar proved we’re often more interested in an actor’s private parts than their performance; Germaine Greer wrote a piece in which she saluted the unveiling of his “impressive genitalia” as the only memorable moment in Trevor Nunn’s production.

Still, getting your kit off is a way for an actor to broadcast how serious and committed they are. Consider Daniel Radcliffe, whose was praised in 2007 for having the ‘balls’ to get naked in Peter Shaffer’s dark drama Equus when he was only 17 (cue many a sneaky snap on smartphones from the stalls). But this was surely as much about shedding Harry Potter the boy wizard as it was about shedding underwear; there’s nothing like an edgily sexual role to shake up the reputation of a former child star.

A sexually-charged British stage production also proved ‘life-changing’ for Nicole Kidman: she made her debut at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998 in The Blue Room, David Hare’s adaptation of Le Ronde. The young Hollywood star had to get dressed on stage, allowing a salivating audience (it was very, very sold out, with tickets exchanging hands for £1,000) to get a glimpse of her bare backside. The Telegraph’s critic Charles Spencer, in an oft-quoted review, described her performance as “pure theatrical Viagra”. Less mention, funnily enough, was made of her co-star Iain Glen’s nudity, despite him quite literally performing cartwheels in the buff.

You’d think the British were really quite obsessed with each other’s naughty bits. The Full Monty and Calendar Girls gave both middle-aged men and women a chance to expose themselves, first on film and then on stage. Suddenly, flashing a bit of flesh was a wholesomely naughty treat; these were cosy, comic, cheeky entertainments, popular with hen parties and coach-loads of tourists. And on they go: Gary Barlow recently unveiled a musical version of Calendar Girls.

The body politic

Nakedness can still be a powerful tool, and a rich seam of productions have exposed the human body in order to explore it as a site for politics, identity and feminism. In the 1980s, legendary US performance artist Karen Finley became known for her bare-all shows, which tackled rape, Aids, incest and other taboo subjects, often while she covered her naked body in chocolate or honey. Such acts were considered too out-there for many even in the ‘90s: Finley had her National Endowment for the Arts funding revoked on the ground of indecency in 1990, which was seen as a scandal of censorship.

We’re a bit more cool about purposeful pudenda-revealing these days. Adrienne Truscott’s 2013 comedy show Asking for It saw her performing in just heels and a denim jacket, a confrontational nakedness adding shock-factor – but also potently making the point that rape is absolutely nothing to do with what a woman is wearing.

And in 2009, Nic Green’s explicitly feminist show Trilogy blurred the boundaries between performer and audience: as well as stripping off herself, she also invited women in the audience to throw off their clothes and join her dancing on stage in what was reported as a hugely liberating, powerful celebration of women’s bodies in all their varied shapes and sizes.

Whether it’s embracing the old-fashioned innocence of nubile showgirls or offering a world-view-changing celebration of wobbly bits, it seems British theatre shows no interest in covering up just yet.

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