Edinburgh shows tackle sex trade

By Kev Geoghegan
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Edinburgh

Image caption,
The play Fair Trade has Oscar winner Emma Thomson as executive producer

Comedy may not seem the most natural way to confront the subject of sex trafficking and the oppression of women. But several shows are tackling that issue at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

In a small venue under the George IV Bridge, Irish comic Keith Farnan reveals the inspiration for his show How Much Is that Woman in the Window.

"We were in Amsterdam and saw the red light district, which was like a human zoo," the lawyer-turned-comedian recalls.

"But as we walked by the canal through the business section of the city, there were a bunch of lads leaning over the railings, shouting and waving money.

"We looked and saw a woman on a balcony having a coffee and I told them the red-light district was further down.

"He basically said: 'This is Amsterdam, she's in a window, we have money, it's fair game.'"

The Cork native asks whether we, as a society, value or devalue women, covering the unrealistic 23-inch waist of size zero to high street shops selling push-up bras for seven-year-olds.

At one point he talks about a friend who defended pole-dancing clubs, comparing them with stripping act The Chippendales.

Farnan responded by asking whether those waxed beefcakes were lured into the country with the promise of a decent job, only to have their passports taken off them, endure gang rape and beatings and have most of their earnings taken away to pay for a small room in a grotty bedsit.

Farnan says the reaction from the audience at some warm up gigs in Ireland has been largely positive, yet he is still viewed with suspicion by some male audience members.

"I've been called whipped, which I had to look up on Google. A lot of the women were waiting for a punchline because so many male comedians basically demean women and that's how they get their comedy.

"I was talking about guys who make rape jokes, which seems to be 'in' at the moment. But when they realise what you're trying do do, it's refreshing.

"If I was a women comedian talking about this, I'd be immediately dismissed and labelled a feminist but as a man, you can challenge people's preconceptions."

Sex slaves

The play Fair Trade, with Oscar-winner Emma Thompson as executive producer, takes a more direct approach. Its script is adapted from the testimonies of women who were trafficked to the UK to work as sex slaves.

Samai from Sudan and Elena from Albania escape the poverty and horror of their old lives with the promise of freedom in England, only to fall prey to sex traffickers.

Writer Anna Holbeck, who plays Elena on stage, met the two women on whom the play is based.

"It was pretty intense," she says. "When we went to interview them, I think we had the idea that they were success stories, in that they had come out of the other end. But we left there completely speechless, we didn't know what to make of it all."

Image caption,
Emma Thompson helped provide funds for Fair Trade

She goes on to explain how difficult it was to address the size of the problem in the UK because victims are reluctant to come forward and ask for help.

"So many of them are far too traumatised and scared to approach anyone in the first place," Ms Holbeck adds.

"Either they have been threatened or the police back home are even worse than the traffickers so that is what their idea of the police here in the UK will be like."

A chance meeting with Thompson - a patron of the Refugee Council and campaigner for immigrants' rights - on a film set inspired her to write Fair Trade, Ms Holbeck says.

"She introduced me to the Journey Against Sex Trafficking (an art installation shown in 2008). I had just left drama college and was looking for something to do and found this campaign that I became a supporter of and wanted to do something about.

"We showed her the script and she was thrilled. She said: 'This is a brilliant script and I can't wait to get started.' Those were her actual words."

Thompson provided funds and helped get the production its first run, even taking part in a Q&A session after the first performance.

'Interesting' theme

Roadkill, by Cora Bissett, sets the issue even closer to home as the audience hears the story of a girl forced into working as a prostitute in the fair city of Edinburgh.

Its entire run throughout the month has sold out.

See Me! Hear Me! opens later in the month and mixes multimedia and physical theatre as an Ivy League professor and expert in economics is confronted by the human faces behind the "world's second-most lucrative industry: Slavery".

Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland says: "One of the great things about the festival is that anyone can do anything they like.

"It is about artists being inspired by whatever inspires them to make the next thing they want.

"I think it is interesting that is a theme which has emerged this year. I think there are some great females taking part, writers, producers, directors. I think it is a good thing."

In the past year, the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC), run by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), has handled more than 700 cases of people suspected of having been illegally trafficked into the country, most of them women.

The figures barely scratch the surface of what is believed to be a multi-billion pound a year worldwide industry.

The UKHTC, in a statement, praised the productions for giving "prominence" to the issue.

"Human trafficking is not just something that happens in other countries," it says. "It happens in the UK, but it is still a hidden crime for many of us. If we are to be successful in tackling it, human trafficking must be visible not only to law enforcement but to the wider public.

"The arts have the freedom to address difficult and challenging issues, such as the trafficking of human beings."

Ms Holbeck adds: "We just hope this has a long life beyond Edinburgh. The more people can see it and take away something from it, even if they learn just one tiny fact, the stories being passed on is all we really want."

Keith Farnan: Sex Traffic - How Much Is That Woman in the Window is shown at the Underbelly until 29 August. Emma Thompson presents: Fair Trade is at the Pleasance Dome until 30 August

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