Swiss Selection Edinburgh review – lives of sex workers laid bare

‘I’m not the person most people think I am,” says Daniel Hellmann in Traumboy (★★★☆☆). That’s partly because, when he’s not working as a performance artist, he earns a living as a prostitute. Coming out as gay in his late teens was one thing; admitting to being a sex worker is another – although, now that he’s made a show about it, the secret is out.

But his sense of being another person is not entirely down to his job. Like any of us, he presents a different face according to the situation. A paying client might like him to be sexily enigmatic. That wouldn’t work for his friends and family. To a theatre audience, he chooses to reveal yet another side of himself.

Although Traumboy is ostensibly about a misunderstood occupation, fascinating in its illicitness, it is just as much about identity and appearances. It is this, not sex, that links the four autofictional shows brought together on the fringe as Swiss Selection Edinburgh. Each is an attempt to get under the skin of the individual.

Questioning our attitudes to sex … Daniel Hellmann in Traumboy. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

This is most charmingly done in 8:8 (★★★☆☆), a delicate, ephemeral and touching piece in which eight performers drawn from the Edinburgh community reveal something of themselves to an audience of eight. In a small basement room, they begin with a slow, almost motionless dance, showing different faces of themselves as they line up in horizontal and vertical arrangements.

Created by Jessica Huber and Karin Arnold for Mercimax, the short performance is based on a simple idea. Eventually, the eight sit down in front of us and take turns giving true and false details about themselves. We get a glancing sense of their past and present, the emotional weight they carry and their sense of humour. They flesh out our first impressions, but it would be hard to say we knew much about them.

Then, however, you put on headphones. The performer sitting in front of you stares into your eyes while you listen to a recording of them talking. Behind the casual conversational remarks they made in public, you hear personal stories usually reserved for intimate acquaintances. It feels tender and intense.

We clap at the end, but are we applauding the show or the people? That’s a question you ask after Traumgirl (★★☆☆☆), a companion piece to Hellmann’s show in which Anne Welenc talks about her life as a sex worker. It follows the form of Traumboy in its first-person exposition, interactive Q&A and sequences of erotic dancing, but has an artlessness that makes it hard to separate the performer from the performance.

Where Hellmann’s piece has a genuine sense of inquiry into our attitudes to sex, Welenc’s piece comes across as tawdry. Her engagement in the debate about the ethics of her job is half-hearted; there are weighty arguments on both sides that the show scarcely acknowledges. If we’re to agree that sex work is a normal occupation, we’d also have to wonder why it was worth making a show about. Clearly, it’s a subject that fascinates us, but her personal story offers little illumination.

By focusing so narrowly on the individual, the season (which also includes Mats Staub’s video installation 21: Memories of Growing Up), risks turning in on itself and losing sight of the big picture.

At Summerhall, Edinburgh, until 25 August.

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