Review – Barely Visible – Unity Theatre

With her one-woman show Barely Visible you could say that Rowena Gander does for pole dance what an entire community did for the word ‘queer’. Just as a word frequently used as a term of abuse has been reclaimed as a means of regaining respect and recognition, an art form often associated with voyeurism and the objectification of women is employed here to demonstrate strength, empowerment and a sense of self.

The myth about Queen Victoria not believing that lesbianism existed has long since been debunked, but there is little doubt that many seem to have a huge problem getting the idea into their heads. One of the things that this hour-long performance does spectacularly well is to illustrate the uphill struggle that lesbians continue to have in getting people to accept the reality of their existence.

This is physical theatre, making very limited use of dialogue of any kind, but part of the soundtrack that underpins it includes soundbites quoting many of the insults or simple ignorant remarks and questions that are frequently used. Sometimes these things are said with the intention of wounding, but frequently they are quite simply an indicator of a complete lack of understanding. You really would have thought that questions like “How do you know you’re a lesbian if you’ve never slept with a man?” would have been consigned to the scrap heap decades ago, but it still gets asked even as we approach a quarter of the way into the 21st century.

Onstage we first see the underside of an upturned, freestanding dance pole, which begins to sway gently from side to side. From behind it limbs emerge and disappear again and then it starts to roll around the space, and we see Gander, engaged in a mesmerising pas-de-deux with the object. Turning the pole onto its base and assembling the upper part she then continues to build the wordless storytelling, in which the human form becomes alternately visible and invisible again in its synergy with the inanimate structure.

As dialogue does begin to appear, first in the recorded soundscape and eventually from the performer herself, so the thrust of the narrative becomes abundantly clear. This is a piece that connects with its audience on many levels, but what it does particularly well is to simultaneously serve as empowerment for those women who already understand the message from personal experience and as a damascene education to everyone else.

The only point at which the spell is temporarily broken is in a segment close to the conclusion in which Gander begins to dismantle the pole and asks members of the audience to pick a section of it up, much in the manner of an illusionist demonstrating that their swords really are sharp. Here the bubble of energy momentarily bursts, but this aside the show holds everyone with its extraordinary magnetism under the sure-footed direction of Elinor Randle (Tmesis Theatre).

Barely Visible is a tremendous example of how powerful physical theatre can be if it is clear about its message. This is essential viewing and a piece that should go a long way towards changing perceptions, developing understanding and elevating pride and identity.

Star rating – 5 stars


Rowena Gander in Barely Visible