Innocent Flesh
Vault Theatre, Valletta Waterfront

The world’s oldest profession is also the world’s worst disgrace and the fact that it is thriving in this day and age, with a financial turnover which keeps the business end of it healthy even in a broken economy, is a clear sign that something is pretty badly snarled in confusion in our society – and it’s not just the girls subjected to this sort of slavery.

TAC Theatre explores the hidden horrors of sex trafficking in Innocent Flesh, written by Kenyetta Lethridge, whose script is honest, graphic and chillingly realistic when it comes to combining the stories of young girls who are drawn and then lost in the downward spiral of teenage prostitution.

Set in a “hidden location” in one of the vaults at the Valletta Waterfront, the premise for the show started on a strong note, with a disturbing promotional video accompanying the electronic tickets, asking the audience to meet at a specific point to be taken to the venue. This set-up served to give those present a glimpse into the surreptitious and seedy underworld of girls on sale – where women are dehumanised, stripped of their identity more viciously than their clothes, and put out as meat on display.

The girls were gyrating and beckoning seductively behind glass windows, in much the same way the brothels in the Amsterdam red-light district operate. Once inside the vault, the four young actresses had a very small performance space to use – a central oblong of red carpeting. Here they told their individual stories and merged into the countless others of mere children like them caught in a tight web of misplaced loyalties to abusive pimps and dysfunctional, unloving families or broken fragments of what was once a family; as they navigate their bodies and ripped up souls in their quest to be loved.

Four young prostitutes shared their lost innocence and childhood desires with the audience as they stripped down layers of bravado and sass to expose vulnerabilities and mourned the loss of their virginity.

Their different character traits and divergent stories still end up leading them all to the same dark place. Products of broken homes, Lupita (Nadia Vella), Lisa (Sarah Jane Mallia) and Candace (Simone Alamango) all struggle with demons from their past.

Street-wise Lupita, hardened by years of excessive discipline and physical abuse from her war-veteran father, who took out his post-traumatic stress disorder on his family, is left orphaned after she runs to the arms of her pimp aged 12, and returns home to find her family dead – at the hands of her father who then killed himself.

Ironically, the lifestyle that robbed her of her innocence and virginity, actually saved her life, and so the spiral began. Different from Lupita is Lisa, for years objectified by paedophilic perverts whom her mother, already almost a whore herself, encourages in exchange for money – for her the transition to prostitution was a legacy.

With a strong script, the performance piece worked well

Ignored by her mother and unrecognised by her father, local Maltese working girl Candace laps up the attention she gets from men and thinks it’s not all a bad life, while Tina Rizzo’s Danna is the only girl whose family background seems to have offered stability in childhood, but whose straight-laced parents disown her upon discovering the kind of lifestyle she leads. Left to her own devices, she leaves her country and presumably ends up in Malta too.

Director Marc Cabourdin channelled the four actresses well in terms of their presentation of the stories, especially since he gave the whole piece a decidedly local flavour – driving the message home more strongly by reminding us that there is no such thing as “this does not happen to us in Malta”.

With a strong script, the performance piece worked well and there were some very real raw moments when the emotion in the four performers’ faces was not only visible but truly connected with the audience.

Alamango’s Candace was naïve and simple in her outlook, while her trusting nature in Malcolm, her pimp, was pitiful. Lisa, played by Mallia, was in a state of arrested development – a sweet little girl who has been corrupted to be a slut. While the characters they built were solid and credible, I did find them to be rather contrived and this came across in a performance which was rather forced at times.

More natural were Vella’s well-played dangerous chav, Lupita, a live wire who was ready to snap at the merest slight and who was aware of the strength of her sexuality; and Rizzo’s Danna, a controlled, rational yet vulnerable young woman.

These two were no ingénues – which made their predicament all the more disturbing. Rizzo, in particular, gave a very controlled and smooth performance, proving that this young actress is one to look out for as she has been steadily going from strength to strength in her recent productions.

Innocent Flesh was consequently an eye-opener, and although hard to watch because of the frankness with which it deals with the reality of the situation, it is nonetheless a good production of socially engaged theatre.

• Innocent Flesh is also being staged on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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