“Bondage has never been so banal”: A review of Theatre Utopia’s Black Beauty in Irons


By - Wednesday 5th October, 2016

The #Croydon #TechCity co-founder delves into the BDSM underworld of ‘riders’ and ‘ponies’


Photo by POSTEROTICISM, used with permission.

Nearly a year after watching the profane puppetry of ‘STAN’, I find myself once again in Theatre Utopia for another dose of taboo-bursting theatre. This time it is for Black Beauty In Irons, a POSTEROTICISM production that seeks to “express the truth of the human condition”.

BDSM is soooo hot right now

Over the course of sixty minutes, the audience is subjected to a world of “safe words”, kink, and “pony-play”, as Aidan, a young administrative assistant from Brixton, and her lover Bravo, seek to find an outlet for the fantasies of being a horse that Aidan has harboured since her teen years.

Initially the duo find release at a BDSM venue frequented by domineering ‘riders’ and dominated ‘ponies’ – men and women who wear bridles, mouthpieces, and false tails. It’s all a bit of harmless fun; something different to spice up their otherwise unexciting relationship.

Predictably, however, Aidan finds herself drawn further and further into her identity as a horse, a descent that is accelerated as she befriends other ‘ponies’ such as Ginger, an exotic woman who hates her day job and refuses to leave her identity at the door when playtime is over. Aidan’s inability to separate reality from fantasy becomes of increasing concern to Bravo, who finds himself shifting from empathetic and enabling lover to the play’s only voice of sanity. The play culminates with Aidan having to make the inevitable choice: pursue the life as a horse thereby forcing society to accept her identity, or disciplining her urges to the weekend arena of this very equine Fight Club.

An unchallenging study of human sexuality

Black Beauty in Irons comes at a time in which exploration and depictions of BDSM – even from the female perspective – are now reasonably mainstream, thanks to 50 Shades of Grey, Nymphomaniac, and Girls. Which means that what from the outset hopes to be edgy and boundary-pushing is actually deeply consistent with the assumed sexual imperatives of our age:

Firstly, sexual acts don’t have intrinsic or transcendent meaning or purposes. They don’t relate to a deeper natural order, their meaning is merely constructed by society and the persons (or ‘ponies’!) engaging in them.

Secondly, our sexuality is a subjective sense and intrinsic to our self-identity. Provided no harm is caused to others, we have a duty of care for ourselves to realise and express our desired sexual identities. As Aidan explains to Bravo, “You don’t identify as a horse – I don’t expect you to understand”.

Thirdly, consent is the watchword for sexual relations, so that beyond the prevention of harm, sexual relations should be freed from social policing and constraint, from norms and from stigmas. Indeed, the central edict of the play is that sexual peccadilloes should not just be expressed, they should also be affirmed. Hence, the ponies’ increasingly politicised demands to “call for the shackles of our society to be thrown off – to walk and act as we please”.

Which is lovely and all, except that it’s mostly wrong.

The second major theme at play is self-identity and transhumanism. Although Aidan is a woman, she ‘feels’ like a horse, and therefore demands the right to be recognised as one. Although I’m not yet 30, I’m still old enough to remember a simpler time when there were only two genders to contend with. Now we are in an era where individuals are can be not just transgendered, but even be “polygender”, “otherkin”, “vapogender” (identify as smoke) and “genderfleur” (identify as a flower). Which means that even when granted its own ideological suppositions, Black Beauty in Irons is actually less the edgy boundary-breaking paean it hopes to be and a rather more bien pensant affair.

Where the play does take-off is in its treatment of its third theme: Society. The world that the ponies live in is one where Ginger bemoans, “I have a commute where no-one talks to me, a job where everyone yells at me, I have no money or friends”, and Aidan describes how “my value is logged in a spreadsheet”. In this godless vacuum of social Darwinism and Mammon, it’s no wonder that the protagonist fantasises of becoming “horses – because they are strong, graceful and kind”.

Bravo, Theatre Utopia

All of the above is not to detract from the production itself. A masterclass in minimalism, the six actors and actresses did an excellent job in creating the claustrophobic atmosphere of a BDSM stable with nothing more than some chairs and spotlights. Although the source material was unchallenging and banal, it was nonetheless a brave performance by those on stage which demanded they put aside their dignity (and clothes) to effectively portray a side of society that few of us have seen firsthand.

As I left the theatre at the back of Matthews Yard, I was reminded of two truths: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9), and that “creation has been subjected to frustration [...] we groan inwardly as we await eagerly for the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8.23). To that extent, POSTEROTICISM really has expressed the “truth of the human condition”.

As ever, I appreciate Theatre Utopia’s attempts to bring more leftfield productions to Croydon. Jamal Chong’s one-man mission to maintain community theatre in Croydon should be supported and celebrated. I just hope that the next production in this vein is more pleasure and less pain.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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