Preview: Skin a Cat – an interview with playwright Isley Lynn

"The final scene I saw – a relentless, breezy epiphany, beautifully handled in all its profanity by Tupper – emphasises this point more than any: it’s about 'creating your own metric for your own happiness'."

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An actress looking to the right in the BT studio. Another person sits to the bottom right, out of focus.
Photo: Laura Henderson-Child

If you have heard of Skin a Cat, the play which graced the Edinburgh Fringe last year, it’s either because you saw the host of awards it picked up, or – more likely – because you’ve seen the vibrant grapefruit (read: labia) of Britomart Production’s show plastered across JCRs and social media. It’s an interesting marketing strategy. It’s also a very effective strategy, because – as I’m soon to find out – this is a play which is anything but shy. “My cunt’s broken,” says the main character, Alana (Millie Tupper), to a man she’s just met in an art studio. It’s an outspokenness I wish I had in my everyday life, but watching her journey – from the age of nine to twenty-five – it’s clear it’s not always been there.

The ‘brokenness’ is a condition called vaginismus, an involuntary contraction of muscles around the vaginal opening. It’s a condition which makes any form of vaginal penetration extremely painful – and, for those who see penetrative sex as the be-all and end-all, it’s easy to see how misconceptions and feelings of despair could easily be built up. Despite it’s commonness – a 2017 BBC news report stated nearly 1 in 10 British women find sex painful, with vaginismus being a large contributor – the name is largely unheard of.

With an introduction to two stools – “this is a queen-size bed”, director Kitty Low informs me – the play is up and away, and I’m taken through three scenes, each at very different points of Alana’s life. I notice a slight tendency towards men being terrible – though often charmingly endearing – with Peter (Hannah Taylor) particularly convincing with a multitude of character tics, and Gerry (Harold Serero) bringing new meaning to the term ‘mansplaining’. But the play isn’t just about heterosexual relationships, it also explores the dynamic between Alana and her mother, her doctor, and her psychiatrist – each bringing their own preconceptions of the disease to the table. It’s skilful in showing how, even without malicious intent, it’s easy to be clueless – and hopefully this script will go some way to dispelling these very misconceptions.

For a play about genitals, I’m informed it’s remarkably unsexy. Although there is, intriguingly, a ‘movement director’ (Victoria Liu) for some of the more ‘acrobatic’ moments, there’s no nudity, and the frustration associated with the act comes through loud and clear. But it’s also incredibly funny, both in script and in performance – a reference to “eating olives seductively” has me giggling, and a purposefully cringey illustration of a secondary school birthday party brings back some sixth-form memories.

Who is the audience for this play? Director Low claims that it is primarily for people our age – and while it will resonate with people who have vaginas, due largely to the intimate subject matter, it’s a play which can be seen – and should be seen – by a wide audience. One actor notes that she’s particularly glad that her male friends are coming to see it, regardless of its immediate relevance, as it’s something they wouldn’t have attended otherwise. If nothing else, it’s a play which will spark conversation, and certainly raise awareness – and that, as the characters say, is “fucking brilliant”.

“I know far too much about random people’s sex lives now. It’s a – privilege.” I’m lucky enough to speak with the original scriptwriter, Isley Lynn, about the Oxford production, but the conversation quickly devolves into a series of anecdotes about the aftermath of the play, which first premiered in 2016. I suggest that it’s because she’s putting so much of herself on stage – or at least the audience believes her to be – that there’s that openness. She agrees, but notes the semi-fictional nature of her work: it’s autobiographical, but “not all of it is true”.

The reason it’s not an autobiographical work is because things in real life don’t always work out quite so well. The medical professionals in this play are largely helpful, even where they haven’t been in reality: Lynn tells me that this is in order to encourage those who need help to seek it. (Even a show which is more coming-of-age than diatribe has a duty of care.) It’s a surprisingly sensitive approach to scriptwriting which takes the audience into account from the start: a script intimately aware that it’s educating many people for the first time.

The conversation takes several interesting turns, including an interesting discussion regarding censorship. Lynn notes that, despite the fairly self-explanatory subject matter, she was asked not to say the word ‘vagina’ on a radio interview (though apparently the word ‘vaginismus’ was fine). It goes to show how taboo the subject still is in the media, which is easy to forget when enveloped within the university sphere – which might make this student-run production all the better. Lynn stands by her mission of “championing radical honesty”, and a university with a magazine called ‘Cuntry Living’ might be a better ground for the conversation than, say, prime-time BBC. “I trust young people to get it,” she laughs.

That’s not to say this is meant to be a particularly radical play. It was originally conceived as an “awkward coming-of-age story”, and from what I saw in the preview the hallmarks of it are very much still there: a clumsy makeout session at an underage party is more Perks of Being a Wallflower than We Should All be Feminists. Lynn says the reason it’s since been pigeonholed as a ‘play for women’, for want of a better phrase, is that male stories are seen as universal: narratives in any way seen as other – female-led, minority ethnic, or LGBTQ+ – are still thought to occupy their own secluded niche.

But as both Low and Lynn stress, it’s a narrative which can, and should, be seen by everyone. The final scene I saw – a relentless, breezy epiphany, beautifully handled in all its profanity by Tupper – emphasises this point more than any: it’s about “creating your own metric for your own happiness”. Society is filled with milestones for all of us, things which should seem effortless but so often aren’t: health, marriage, Insta-perfect lives, penetrative sex. There are “entire magazine empires” built around maintaining this status quo. Once you have taken this metric into your own hands, you are able to redefine what it means to be happy on your own terms. And that’s a message for all of us, regardless of gender.

I’m extremely, but pleasantly, surprised to find that Lynn has had zero communication with Britomart Productions despite being heavily involved with all previous productions (including last year’s tour). With her most recent play War of the Worlds also performing in Oxford this week (at the North Wall) – “same style, very different subject matter” – there’s a clear sense of a playwright moving past her success onto bigger and bolder things. At the same time, Britomart Productions’ piece feels self-assured and explorative – a theatre company coming into their own. With typical candor, Lynn sums up her own feelings towards this departure: “Skin a Cat is the most important thing I’ve done in my life, and for the first time it’s not me driving it. So I’m really excited to see how it’s going to go.” With my ticket already booked for this week, so am I.

Skin a Cat is at the BT Studio from 12th-16th February.

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