The body-shaming knot unravelled, in a cunning little play: Woman Caught Unaware, a Fringe review

Davina Stewart in Woman Caught Unaware, Edmonton Fringe 2021. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Woman Caught Unaware (Varscona Theatre)

In this surprising, cunningly written little 2018 play by the Brit writer Annie Fox, an older woman (a woman of a certain age, the delicate way of saying over 50 and under 90) makes a horrifying discovery.

She’s an art history prof, and as the title, borrowed from her field, suggests, that will figure in the way things play out. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” says the student who comes to see her in out-of-office hours.

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It’s with the unwelcome news that a photo of her, naked in a changing room, has been taken without her knowledge and posted online. And the viral sharing, the mocking hashtags (#crone #witch #nevergetold), and the laughing emojis have begun.

What action should she take? That’s the question Professor Conté must grapple with in Woman Caught Unaware. In Trevor Schmidt’s production Davina Stewart captures so convincingly the wry but thoughtful reticence, the analytical habit, the dry self-assessment and reserve of the career academic, you’ll remember all those times you handed in an essay late.   

The social media reaction to the photo is, of course, an indictment of body-shaming, the vilification of the aging female body, the implication that a woman’s worth is in direct equation to appearance measured against the cruel youth/beauty standard. But more than that, social media hashtags reflect a prevailing cultural attitude in representations of older women, as an art historian is well-positioned to know. “When we age, you flinch,” she says appraisingly.

There’s no shortage of allies in the professor’s “civilized” world for  a spirited response to her “ordeal,” a legal fight perhaps, some sort t of retaliation in the media. And it’s amusing to see that world of academia, in all its petty jealousies, one-upmanship, and liberal persiflage, conjured with such dexterous economy. Being a victim of an unwanted revelation, though, in a way accepts that occupying an aging female body is a humiliation. So …. how will Professor Conté react?

Woman Caught Unaware explores all this in a multi-angled way, surprising and provocative at every turn. Schmidt’s production, and this very fine performance by Stewart, build beautifully to a slow reveal.

Sometimes live theatre just knocks you out the way it can jolt you out of one way of thinking and open up other possibilities. This is one of those those times.

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