Siúan Póirtéir looks at how memory is stored and shared through women’s bodies in Imogen Butler-Cole’s Foreign Body

When I attended the world premiere of Foreign Body during the WOW (Women of the World) Festival at the Southbank Centre in London, I was reminded of the transformative possibilities of theatre for both the performer and the audience. The play, performed by Imogen Butler-Cole, takes the audience on a journey along with Butler-Cole herself, who illustrates her experience of processing and healing from her sexual assaults through a combination of verbatim and physical theatre.

The performance was held in an intimate space and the set was simple; the actress was surrounded by a semi-circle of mirrors and her only prop was a chair. The chair came to convey the burden of her assault, but it also demonstrated her strength, her ability to transform a weight that once held her down into tool with which she could assert herself in that space. There was no direct speech in this performance. Instead, recordings of the actress’ own testimony, as well as the testimony of other survivors and even the confession of one of her perpetrators, played in the background throughout the performance while she communicated her experiences through her body.

She showed the endurance of the female body and challenged simplified understandings of survivors of assault as fragile victims. Through the versatile movements of her body, she expressed both vulnerability and strength in her performance, highlighting the complicated impact of sexual violence. This focus throughout the play on one individual body somehow highlighted how personal every woman’s experience of sexual violence is. And indeed, this was complemented by the actress’ decision to include not only her own experiences, but the narratives of other women as well, who all told a different story of surviving sexual violence. Most profoundly, Butler-Cole’s use of the body as the main device through which she narrates her experience to the audience is an active effort to reclaim both the body itself and women’s narratives from the violence done to them by a world which diminishes and erases them and favours men.

While this one-woman play is highly personal in nature, it underlines the capacity for performance arts to create counter-narratives and transmit the memories of individual women to audiences that will carry those memories with them beyond the theatrical space.