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Review: ‘Skin Hunger’ is an emotional and hilarious look at grief

Grief can be a bitter sweet thing. Almost unbearable at times, yet also a reminder of the value of someone’s life and the love we felt for them. Skin Hunger is a play about such grief, in which Eva (Tatiana Hotere), a middle-aged perimenopausal woman comes to terms with the death of her husband and the psychological and physical effects that come with her grief. 

Right from the opening scene the audience knows this is probably not going to be a conventional play. A present arrives that is, shall I say, somewhat unorthodox for a someone who has suffered a loss. I won’t give it away, but the gift brings a great deal of humour and signals that this work recognises the paradoxical nature of comedy and death. 

The play is part monologue, where Eva talks directly to the audience, and part traditional theatre with scenes played out with two other actors who take on a number of roles. What follows is a very genuine exploration of one woman’s journey from loss to recovery. 

Eva explains how hard it is to deal with the almost meaningless platitudes that accompany a death such as “He’s in a better place,” “You have to move on.”  What this conveys is that people are often unable to truly process grief themselves and often don’t know how to handle the awkward emotions that the bereaved deal with. What she wants is to be listened to, to be touched, yet the well-worn phrases, designed to somehow make it easier to get through the process, can actually make the one bearing the most loss even lonelier. 

A central theme in the play is the role religion has in relationships. Eva, from Brazil, is Roman Catholic. From an early age, she was raised to view sex as a sin unless consummated in a marriage. The fear of ‘immorality’ is brandished like a whip, poised, ready to strike at any slight indiscretion. The faux notion of ‘morality’ from a Church that is itself corrupt contaminate Eva’s mind and creates a needless guilt within her. Part of her recovery involves diminishing this judging presence in her life. Especially her own self-judgement about ‘cheating’ on a deceased husband. 

Using deeply emotional scenes, and also moments of hilarious mockery, Skin Hunger cleverly  exposes the the double standards Catholic society espouses about women’s sexuality when compared to that of men. It’s all succinctly summed up by three simple words uttered by a female relative: “men have needs.” Apparently, woman don’t. It is their role to be pure, illustrated by the  dichotomy of being either ‘madonna or whore.’

When wrestling with the conflicting thoughts in her head, and contemplating the notion that ‘she’ should seek God’s forgiveness for her desire to have sex outside of marriage, Eva bitterly issues a damning retort.

God should forgive me for not turning off my sex drive when my husband died.”

This then, is the other conflict that is confusing Eva. She is constantly horny. She craves companionship, intimacy, and love. She is a widow, just at the time her body is going through ‘the change of life.’ Another cliche. What that also literally stirs up in her is desire, yet also confusion. 

Coming to her aid is her friend Lorraine (Denise Snoad), who as her ‘counsellor in chief’ helps Eva through some of the toughest times. It is their interactions, especially when talking about dating apps, and sexuality that provide the most laughs. When Eva finally does go on dates, Hotere, Snoad, and actor Albert Belz provide some of the funniest dating interactions I’ve seen on a stage. 

She is beginning a journey, but the play’s criticisms of society and the church are not just bitter recriminations, rather they are pointed and heartfelt cries for understanding and genuine human connection. Painfully, Eva realises that rather than offer solace, her faith and some of her community cannot provide the real comfort, nor answer the questions she has about her grief or the effects that grief has on her body.

Two important points are made by this play: ‘grief can take your life away,’ and ‘grief can make you horny.’  They are very real reactions, but often our collective responses are to try and suppress those notions, and to try and reduce grief to simple platitudes.

What Skin Hunger shows, is that being open and honest about our feeling, needs, and conflicts is the healthiest way to heal ourselves. What we need is understanding and support, not judgment or cliched responses. 

This is a charming, funny, sweet and honest portrayal of a woman wrestling with complex and contradictory feelings and it does so with a beautiful balance of wit and emotion. 

SKIN HUNGER plays at Basement Theatre:
Dates: Mon 13 – Sat 17 September 2022, 6.30pm
Venue: Basement Theatre
Tickets: $18 – $28 

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