meet the queer performance troupe blending shakespeare and sex
Naked Boys Reading is revitalizing classic literature and dissecting male body image through naked performance.
"I think you're only really yourself in the three minutes after you cum," said one audience member following a night of naked readings, "and this kind of replicates that intimacy, the lack of barriers, but throws some poetry into the mix."
He has a point: there's something oddly post-coital in the intimacy of the naked performance. As one of the few occasions that we engage publicly with literature — and one of the fewer occasions we see cocks that aren't the shaven, throbbing penises of porn — Naked Boys Reading has carved a niche.
Somewhere between literary salon, cabaret, and sausagefest, it raises questions around the eroticism of art, the sexualization of the body, and the politics of the cock with an openness so sorely absent from mainstream masculinity. "It's a cornucopia of different bodies offering themselves to be shared via literary experience," says Dr. Sharon Husbands, the PhD-wielding-drag-queen-princess who co-founded the night with the Duchess of Pork, the night's DJ. Or as she otherwise termed it, "It's basically a bookish faggot's wet dream."
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death, the Naked Boys are serving schlongs alongside Shakespeare. The choice is fitting: despite the fact that Shakespeare is now mostly consumed by your Protestant nan taking a day trip up to Stratford — or under the straight triarchy of the school syllabus — Shakespeare has always been deliciously queer.
Whether the genderfuck whirlwind of cross-dressing in As You Like It or Sebastien and Antonio's homoerotic language of devotion in Twelfth Night, questions have been raised about gender fluidity and homoeroticism throughout the Shakespearean canon, a queerness amplified in performance. Women were banned from the Shakespearean stage — mostly because the Elizabethans thought women were all potentially crazed sex witches that the stage might unleash — so male parts were played by adult men, and female parts by boy actors. So when Romeo's chirpsing Juliet, it's less Ross and Rachel, and more daddy meets twink.
"We always knew we had to do Shakespeare," says Husbands, "right from the start." If the naked revival of England's greatest playwright might cause controversy among more conservative readers, then it would be nothing new for the troupe. On two occasions, venues have questioned the use of "boys" for fear of sounding pedophilic. Husbands is strident about the issue: "They thought it meant underage boys, but nobody ever has this issue when it's naked girls reading because we're so accustomed to signs and songs using 'Girls, girls, girls!' We're forever sexualizing and infantilizing women through the term, so in a way, we're trying to do the same thing with men. It's playful, but it's political too."
The format, naked readings followed by ingenious textual analyses (and icy shade) from Husbands, prevents the political undercurrent of the night from becoming preachy or proselytizing, and the act of enjoying texts and bodies takes center stage. The communal reading experience reinvigorates the texts, many of which — and Shakespeare in particular — were deliberately crafted to be read aloud and enjoyed communally.
Nakedness changes things: it activates certain subtexts, emphasizes sensuality, and injects taboo into literature we too often treat as tame. That said, the experience is far from seedy. The audience's cock-shock subsides within seconds, and what remains is a vulnerability that creates the night's ineffable intimacy.
"It can be erotic," says Theo, a regular performer among the Naked Boys, "but it has more meaning than that." Instead, the event "exposes how bodies can mean in different ways, as opposed to a reductive scenario of sex and sexualization," he says, adding that what happens during the event is something rather counterintuitive. The bodies, that we are so often taught mean sin and sex instead are set free, while the texts, which we interact with as dead artifacts, come alive with a sensual power we rarely engage with.
The whole thing is "liberating," and he performs for "the amazing feeling when you get laughter or applause, and the sense that you're holding the room while in such a vulnerable position." It's the act of reading that's the scary bit, not the nakedness, something echoed by another audience member: "I wouldn't mind being naked on stage," he mused, "but there's no fucking way I could read aloud in public."
In many ways, the whole thing is liberating, even therapeutic. There's something empowering about seeing men present their bodies without shame or shyness, and Naked Boys Reading offers a cross section of reality, not the unrealistic "ideals" of the eat clean insta queens. Men of color, short guys, tall guys, the toned and the doughy all have their turn, and it's as refreshing as it is important. As Dander, another regular performer puts it: "You see a trillion dicks online, but you don't see real dicks, real bellies, real skin, real blemishes — real people."
Perhaps most interesting thing about the evening's political subtext is precisely that: dick. As Theo says, "You see them erect or you don't see them at all," a point that Husbands develops with incision: "The soft cock is terrifying because it doesn't show virility, whereas the hard cock is terrifying because it's aggressive if not rapey."
This paradox explains its almost total absence from the mainstream media. The humble wang is hidden, and with that repression comes the size fears, the performance anxiety, and the sexual dysfunction that plagues many men's lives. Masculinity silences honest discussion, and in exploding the taboo, Naked Boys Reading shouldn't be underestimated.
Ultimately, the celebrations in the month of Shakespeare's death will pass in the same way they always do, with a slew of stilted performances, choice quotes across Twitter to show how well-read we all are, and some invariably dull BBC coverage. Occasionally, though, Shakespeare is more innovatively reinterpreted, and we're reminded of why he has become the keystone of the Western canon. Naked Boys Reading, dare I say it, will do precisely that.
Naked Boys Reading will perform in the Miranda at the Ace Hotel, Shoreditch on Thursday, April 28 at 7:30.
Text Edward Siddons
Photography Vanek London