For most of us, the sex trade is an unknown, shadowy concept, a rumour or an issue, something we might watch a Channel 4 documentary about, or gossip about – 'You know that flat above the chippy with the blacked out windows?'. It's difficult to imagine what really goes on, and certainly almost impossible to imagine what it's like for the women involved.
In a Thousand Pieces is an attempt to make that leap of imagination, by tracking the experiences of one un-named Eastern European woman, tricked and physically forced into prostitution. The performance doesn't exactly tell her story, and she never quite becomes a character. Instead we are presented with the fragments of her experience, from the naïve hopes she had when she arrived in England (She thinks all the people will be 'rosy-cheeked and cheery'), through to her abduction, and to the hundreds and hundreds of times she is raped.
It's an experimental piece, mashing together 4 (If I've got that right) different elements. There's dance, or perhaps more accurately, physical theatre. The performers, three tall, young women dressed in identical pastel frocks, move about the stage with grace and humour to show the woman's journey to England. Then the two most memorable and disturbing moments of the performance come when rape is represented on stage. Initially it's shown as like the experience of having an epileptic fit; later it becomes a sort of depressing non-experience, the women blank and petrified as unseen men thump away.
There are verbatim transcriptions and recordings of the real experiences of women, and also of British men and women, giving their opinions on prostitution and displaying, for the most part, their ignorance both of the sex trade and of anything about Romania or Poland.
Finally, there's an element of first-person reflection, as the performers explain the shortcomings of their research, their failure to really pin down and therefore personify any of the women they were studying.
It all blends together really well, as one element exploits or reacts to another. The sum effect is powerful and upsetting. At times, I did feel ever-so-slightly hectored, as if I was watching a piece of heavy political theatre from the 1980s. When the subject is so shocking, and British society so uncaring, you can't really blame the performers for wanting to have a bit of a go at their audience, but I still don't think that's quite what theatre is for.
I really don't want to put anyone off going to see In a Thousand Pieces by going on about how harrowing it is. It is upsetting, but it's thrillingly creative, very accessible, and also weirdly beautiful.