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Smoke writer Kim Davies: the play is a Rorschach inkblot of power, sex, and gender

Davies' play makes its London premiere at Southwark Playhouse

Meaghan Martin and Oli Higginson in rehearsals for Smoke
© Lucy Hayes

Please note, this feature contains references to sexual assault.

Smoke began in my very early 20s, because one of my colleagues at my third or fourth unpaid internship decided he wanted to direct Miss Julie. "But if you write a version of it," he said, "I won't have to pay for the rights."

At the same time, the New York BDSM scene was having a sort of pre-#MeToo moment—it was only 2012, but all of a sudden people in the community, mainly submissives and women, were starting to talk about all the sexual violence they'd experienced in BDSM. I wasn't part of the scene, but I became involved with a group of BDSMers who wanted to change their culture from within—or so they thought.

The trouble was that everyone knew everybody. The activists I worked with within the scene couldn't seem to find the willpower to even uninvite known rapists from parties, let alone expel them from the group. "I wasn't there," people would often say. "I don't know what really happened." Mistakes were made, it was understood, but somehow they never seemed to stick to the people who made them. The activists I worked with genuinely wanted to make the scene a safer place, but they also didn't want to stop inviting their friends' rapists to brunch.

I recognised this dynamic. I thought I'd left it behind in college. BDSM culture, I came to realife, was merely mainstream sexual culture writ large. With higher stakes.

Then I became very interested in doing something with Miss Julie. But a straightforward adaptation—or even an adaptation at all—was never my intention. I wanted to play with some of the same chords. I wanted to take the bare mechanics of Strindberg's 1888 machine, throw it into a New York party in 2012, and see if it would still turn.

Smoke has now run in nine or so productions. Ten years after I first started working on it, it's stunning to see how the culture around it has changed. Reviews for the New York premiere in 2014 were decidedly mixed: a number of reviewers couldn't seem to wrap their heads around a play that dealt with BDSM culture as it is, rather than BDSM as sexual fantasy. When the New York premiere finally closed after being extended three times, I was relieved that at least I wouldn't have to answer any more questions about Fifty Shades of Grey. (Still haven't read it.) But what's most fascinating is that not a single review from 2014 seems to recognise the central event of the play as a sexual assault.

I shouldn't be surprised. In a way, that's by design. I wrote Smoke because I was so tired of hearing "I don't know, I wasn't there, he seems like a nice guy" from the kind of people who were attending the well-meaning anti-rape dramas I was also sick of seeing. Everyone seemed to know that rape was bad, I thought. But did everyone know that rape was rape?

So the play is built to be a kind of Rorschach inkblot of power, sex, and gender. The play you see is, in a way, the one you brought with you. There is no handholding, no signposting, no indication of what the "correct" moral judgment might be. You simply watch the events of the play from beginning to end, complicit in the conversation as you watch it unfold.

Some ten years after I began the play, thanks to the #MeToo movement, the conversation about sexual assault has opened up in ways I couldn't have imagined when I was coming of age in the early 2010s. Audiences who see the play today are used to a very different culture around consent and sexuality than the one I grew up in. I'm curious to see what they bring to the theater this February. It might be a two-hander play, but there's a third character who's different every night—the audience.

Smoke is currently in previews at Southwark Playhouse.


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