I'll be banned if I will

For an art form that's branded irrelevant, theatre provokes outrage surprisingly often. The latest victim is 'Geek', with its vaginal surprise. By Clare Bayley
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It was a strange, Ealing Comedy type of scene last week - the 25 war veterans in full regalia and medals, huddled outside the theatre of Nottingham's Trent University protesting about Robert Pacitti's show, Geek. "Haven't you heard what happens?" says one to a curious passer-by. "She gets a Union Jack and takes it out of her fanny. We're not worried about that [ie, her fanny], but when it comes to the Union Jack it's a different bloomin' matter." What those veterans didn't know was that later in the show, Robert Pacitti removes an even- longer string of seven Union Jacks from the backside of fellow performer Chris Green. But the veterans still managed to get the performance stopped under Section 37 of the Theatres Act, regarding "licentious behaviour and public disorder".

Not even Mary Whitehouse succeeded in stopping performances of Howard Brenton's Romans in Britain in 1980, despite the prosecution. Yet now, in the 1990s, theatre seems to be provoking outrage surprisingly often - from the critics' fury over Sarah Kane's Blasted to the infamous Slave Babies. And this in an age when theatre is said to be so irrelevant as to be virtually moribund.

In the case of Geek, though, it's easy to see how the furore arose. Imagine you're a Nottingham war veteran and lifelong taxpayer. You're still a bit miffed that your Labour council wouldn't run up the Union Jack over the main square on VE Day. Then the local rag plops through your letterbox and tells you that the same council is paying good taxpayers' money for a woman to pull Union Jack bunting out of her private parts. What do you say? "I'm not going to make any snap judgements until I've seen the whole show, thought about it in context and discussed it with my friends over a pint of Guinness"? Are you really?

As usual, the media seems to be the main villain of the piece, with headlines such as "Fury Over Union Jack Sex Show" and a phone poll asking "Should this show be banned?" The Pro Vice Chancellor of the University, which runs one of the most respected Contemporary Theatre courses in the country, was not exactly brave when he immediately caved in and pulled the show (incidentally, he is also the director of East Midlands Arts). And as for Barclays Bank, sponsor of the New Stages Festival of which Geek is part, it just lay low and kept out of trouble. But Stella Hall, artistic director of the festival and the Royal Court, its main London venue, stood by Geek.

Meanwhile the enfant terrible, the purveyor of obscenity, Robert Pacitti himself was looking very serious, rather pale and a little shaky at the Royal Court on the eve of Geek's London performances. "I must have been living in a bubble, but I honestly didn't realise it would upset people in the way it did. While we warn people they might find it offensive, we've been very careful not to publicise this particular scene. It's not a porn show." The show takes the form of a "geek show"; a freak is somebody whose physical deformity makes them unusual, a geek is someone who chooses to be unlike others, by an action or behaviour - tattooing, piercing, cross-dressing, sword-swallowing. It is a neat metaphor for the positions that gay men and lesbians have to take up in society. In the rest of the show the only sexual representation is choreographic, stylised and rather beautiful. It is aimed at a very particular, sophisticated audience, and it fits into a tradition of provocative performance, from Karen Finley to Annie Sprinkle, and from Edward Lan (who based an entire performance on men wanking in the locker room) to Ron Athey, who pierces his body and self-mutilates live on stage.

"Of course I'm sensitive to the unfortunate timing in Nottingham with the flag issue," says Pacitti, allowing himself a wan laugh. "But I feel I served so many political agendas up there, and in the end I was completely silenced as an artist." Pacitti disagrees with the theory that if people are trying to ban a performance, at least it means that theatre really matters. Rather than promoting debate, this kind of response stifles it. "Nobody in all this time ever asked me about the form or the content of the piece," he says, exasperated. "If I use disturbing images, it's because what I see all around me, the culture I live in, is disturbing. Nationalism is disturbing. Racism is disturbing. Homophobia is disturbing."

A visual artist by training, a former dancer with the Featherstonehaughs and an actor with Gay Sweatshop, Pacitti is both an intelligent and a skilled performer. Geek contains some memorable and lovely images, as well as that notorious flag scene. "We started from the assumption that whiteness is a cultural issue, an ethnicity, and that however you've been brought up and educated, you've still got a certain amount of baggage. At the start of the performance she takes the flag from inside herself and drags it out into the open, where it's up for grabs. It is an image of disdain, but we all have a right to the discussion about who owns the flag."

n 'Geek': Royal Court, London SW3 tonight only (0171 730 1745)