Every generation harbours the misguided belief that it alone has truly discovered sex and that hitherto it was a purely functional affair. Rachel Mars kicks this myth resoundingly into touch in her new show Your Sexts are Sh*t: Older Better Letters. Indeed, juxtaposing sexts with steamy love letters dating back to the 18th century, Mars exposes the relative banality of contemporary expressions of desire.
She opens the show with a reading from James Joyce, who, as she says, was heavily into bums. His letters to Nora Barnacle are replete with scatalogical images, fantasies and entreaties – as is the letter that follows, from Mozart to his cousin Marianne. Unashamedly explicit and intimate, these missives were clearly intended only for the eyes of the recipients – rather than the ears of a theatre audience – so there is an uncomfortably prurient flavour to all this. However, it’s difficult not to acknowledge that these lengthy and graphic outpourings have some merit in comparison with their modern day sexting descendant; “Tell me things while I poop.”
The letters are (thankfully) not all about arses and farts; some are humorous and some are quite poetic. All positively ooze carnality. The erotic eloquence of ‘older, better letters’ prompts Mars to reflect on the letters she herself would like to write to a new lover. She considers not only the specific content but also the way in which such letters would provide the opportunity to “construct the me that I want you to receive”, and, in turn, for the mutual construction of an ‘us’. For Mars, it feels like letter-writing offers the possibility of a more profound sexual connection.
Furthermore, Mars is aware that the power of the letter extends beyond the words on the page. Displays of a short extract from each historic letter on an overhead projector screen remind us that the hard copy form – the paper and handwriting – additionally carries a direct physical sense of the writer. This enhances the erotic impact in a way that is simply not available on SMS.
Random 21st century sexts are, of course, easy targets compared with writing from the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Charles Bukowski, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust and Eleanor Roosevelt. If they were alive today, it is hard not to wonder if they and their love affairs might also fall victim to the attenuating force of instant communications technology. (I simply refuse to believe, however, that any of them would be reduced to “Want to get pregnant?” or “Wow, congratulations on your penis.”)
By the end of the show, we are left in no doubt about the erotic cost involved in the demise of the love letter. Yet this is not the end of the story. Mars concludes with a series of sexts pleading for a desire that can withstand the passion-draining pressures of domesticity and life crises. These one-liners initially appear to have all the prosaic qualities that have been scathingly observed throughout the show. Gradually, however, both tenderness and passion become discernible and it begins to feel like poetry. It may not be James Joyce, but there is both hopefulness and poignancy here (and no mention of farts, which, in my book, is a plus.)
Rachel Mars’ delivery is wonderfully precise and nuanced – which perfectly complements the in-yer-face nature of the content. The pacing feels a little off; I ‘get it’ fairly quickly and, after a while, the ‘dirty letters’ novelty fades and it becomes a little repetitive. Nevertheless, Your Sexts are Sh*t is a timely and provocative piece of theatre, prompting us – like Dante or Die’s wonderful User Not Found – to reflect on the implications of our digital world and how it impacts upon our relationships.
Photograph: Maurizio Martorana