An unsettling experience, Owen Steinberger reviews ‘The Game’ as part of one of Dublin Theatre Festival’s many performances.

Before The Game can begin, there is a short, ominous introduction. Set to a relentless, pounding drum that echoes from somewhere off-stage, two ‘hostesses,’ Gemma Collins and Lauren Larkin, aggressively warn the audience of what is to come. “If it’s a game, then what are the stakes?” they ask, the intensity of their speech growing, building to a climax of traded shouts: “check your mirrors!” “a wider theme!” These repeated phrases drill into the brain. They undermine the cheerful, playful atmosphere that is soon to follow, instilling a sense of urgency in the upcoming performance. There is a message beneath it all, they inform us, like a swift undercurrent, and it speaks to a wider social context.

They are not actors, they are volunteers, and their role is precisely what makes The Game a unique, impossible to replicate, experience.

With a snap of the fingers The Game begins. A whimsical jingle playing from hidden speakers as the performers enter stage left. The set is simple: A single bed with plain white sheets in the centre of the stage. A set of wooden bleachers in the back, over which “The Game” is emblazoned in neon. The two bewigged hostesses usher the ‘contestants’ on-stage, introducing them to the audience and assigning them individual numbers, forecasting their roles in the upcoming game. The five male contestants, of significantly different ages and lifestyles, all seem worried. They are not actors, they are volunteers, and their role is precisely what makes The Game a unique, impossible to replicate experience.

In close cooperation with sex workers, both past and present, THEATREclub have created a series of sketches that replicate true accounts of abuse in the sex industry. The male contestants are tasked with playing the role of the abuser in each one, the hostesses the abused. In acting out these sequences, the contestants are granted several ‘safe words’ and phrases, which they can use to remind themselves of The Game’s performative nature, and are allowed to leave at any time. “I’m not enjoying this, but I’ll pretend to enjoy it;” “this is not happening to me, it’s happening to someone else.” The contestants frequently rely on these phrases to maintain focus on the present, to disassociate themselves from the scenes they take part in.

Their genuine, unscripted reactions make for a memorable performance.

Contestants wear looks of discomfort, varying from mild to extreme as the intensity of the scene escalates – during one scene, Ray, contestant number one, has to leave the stage for several minutes in order to contain his disgust. Their genuine, unscripted reactions make for a memorable performance. By the concluding scene, a re-enacted gang rape where the hostesses are stripped and covered with fake bodily fluids, the contestants are visibly shaken, as are many in the audience. Through the use of untrained volunteers the reality of these abusive situations is emphasised, making for a deep emotional impact on all involved, collapsing the divide between performance and reality.

The hostesses speak to the audience in direct terms about the issues presented on stage, in one instance making an impassioned case for the decriminalization of sex work in Ireland, citing increased safety from abuse. A well-intentioned plea, to be sure, but the performance speaks well enough for itself. Despite this heavy-handedness, however, The Game manages to impress on the audience the true horror of the sex industry as it is today, without regulation. The performance itself owes much to the volunteers, as their own understanding of sex relations colours the audience’s perspective, making for an engaging experience that is unique every time.