Spotlight: Theater play questions gender labeling, sexuality in Turkey
by Zeynep Cermen
ISTANBUL, March 11 (Xinhua) -- A man, wrapped in a shawl and wearing women's high-heel boots with red lipstick on his face, was tied up in the hands on a pole by a woman.
A thrilled audience stood up and gave enormous applause when Vanda, the female character, slapped twice in the face of the man and left the stage.
It is a scene from a private theater play on show in Istanbul, which was adapted from the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel "Venus in Furs" that highlights gender inequality by revealing the most hidden desires of a man through an encounter with a woman.
The two-person play has been granted several awards in Turkey, getting significant appreciation from intellectuals, writers and the audience in terms of bringing to light gender labeling and sexuality so explicitly in a conservative society.
"The narrative is, of course, a bold one for Turkey, for a strong patriarchal country, where there is tremendous pressure on women and LGBT members," said Ersin Umut Guler, the actor and the director, referring to the groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
"The story is a striking one as it also displays a psychological journey toward the darker side of the psychology of our male protagonist, Thomas Novachek, exposing his suppressed intimate passions," he told Xinhua.
Known as father of masochism, Sacher-Masoch depicted in his book a man getting sexual pleasure from the feeling of pain, exposing his feminine side through the humiliation by a woman.
In the first episode of the play, Thomas lowers women and lesbianism in sexist dialogues. But later the traditional societal codes of women being slaves and men being masters shift places, said Guler.
And, Vanda, as a woman, starts to confuse Thomas's mind.
In the view of Pervin Bagdat, the actress, gender roles in Turkey define all the characteristics of individuals in classifying them as being feminine or masculine.
"Society casts a role for each of us, determining how to behave, what to do and not to do, or what to wear," she told Xinhua.
In her opinion, people sometimes are obliged to give up their own needs and desires to be in line with the societal codes and consume their lives without ever truly discovering themselves.
"So the play could be regarded as rule-breaking in that sense," she said.
The reactions of the audience, meanwhile, vary depending on their genders, according to the performers.
"I met with old ladies who squeezed my cheeks after the play, telling me that I have taken the revenge of suppressed women in society," said Bagdat.
For young women, they were impressed significantly by the dialogues, which forced them to think twice on the gender issue and on tapping the power within themselves.
The actress argued that women in the country are socially trapped, oppressed and constrained, subjected to sexist treatment in terms of language, work and families.
"And we are bored, as both men and women, we are bored from the fact that we are told how to behave, how to dress, and how to talk," Bagdat said.
In Guler's view, women could easily reach the power within themselves, but "for men it is a complicated process."
"They cannot comfortably reveal what they feel in deep down their personalities," he said, noting men are not ready to face with the notion of being humiliated by women or revealing their feminine energy.
Burak Coskun, an Ankara-based journalist, said the audience in Istanbul, the most populous city in Turkey, is more ready and open for such matters as revealed in a theater play than the rest of the country.
"Even in the capital Ankara, we do not see such bold topics in plays," Coskun said.
According to Guler, the reason is the scarcity of private theaters in Ankara and other cities.
"There is growing pressure from the government over the state theaters in the selection of plays and also costumes," Guler explained.
"Censorship and most importantly self-censorship are increasingly on the agenda," he stressed, highlighting the bans imposed currently by the state authorities on several theater plays and players in Turkey.
Guler noted that private theaters, numbering more than 200 in Turkey, are mostly in Istanbul and have more independence.
He established the private Yolcu Theather in 2013, and since then he has been staging plays which question wars, the exploitation of workers, and rape and torture in prisons.