Review: ‘Beauty is Pain’ at the Wickham Theatre

Georgia Moule-Bettell reviews ‘Beauty is Pain’, a play created by University of Bristol students exposing the exploitation occurring within the world of Pageant shows.  

As part of the ten-day running InterAct Festival, University of Bristol students have created a performance art piece with the title  ‘Beauty is Pain’. The play is constructed around a Miss USA pageant and set out to criticise not only Donald Trump’s own involvement within such events, but also takes a look at the ever-prevalent and discriminatory way in which women are treated in mainstream media. The play was hard-hitting, at times comical and by the end, genuinely thought-provoking.

‘Beauty is Pain ‘incorporates an immersive style from the get-go and the audience are exposed to the underlying issues of pressure regarding the ideals of beauty set upon women. As my friend and I first watched, we were mesmerised by how they had set the scene as if a real Miss USA pageant was taking place before our eyes. This first section of the play placed us within the pageant, making the message of the play initially subtle, but still giving us a good understanding of the crudeness and performance which beauty pageants consist of. The first striking moment within the piece is when we are taken backstage in a seamless set change. As Miss Alabama is frantically trying to get ready, eating balls of cotton wool to supposedly suppress her hunger, she is approached by the seemingly charming presenter of the pageant. In a move to try and kiss her, we as an audience feel awkward and horrified – what I believe they wanted us to feel. This moment aimed to highlight the first issue of the pageant world – sexual harassment – and was done in a way that was elusive yet impactful.

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However, the scene that resonated with me the most, apart from the plays ending, was a scene that came later on. As all the contestants had been introduced, the theme music is playing, the host is speaking out to the audience – the play is interrupted. Donald Trump’s voice is bellowed over the speakers and the pageant cast is shocked. This intentionally awkward scene is cut short after hearing legitimate quotes from Trump such as; ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America’ ‘Grab her by the pussy’ and other sexist comments. This striking scene not only began to introduce Donald Trump’s own involvement within beauty pageants but also took the play in a whole new direction. It is also here that we really see the actress playing Miss Florida come into her element; her engaging and bubbly character was mesmerising throughout the play, never missing a cue to react and draw my eyes towards what she was doing on stage. Shortly after this scene, the four contestants enter the stage, sit down behind a ‘mirror’ and start taking diet pills. What made this scene stand out was the utilisation of the projector at the back of the stage. Playing diet pill and weight loss commercials from fifty or so years ago that although looked outdated, still had a lot of resonance with today’s dieting culture and was a thought-provoking moment for the play’s audience. This continued use of the screen in the background of the stage added a whole other dimension to the play, allowing the audience to relate to what was happening on stage with wider society. The girls dramatically run off the stage as if to be sick, highlighting other issues within beauty pageants such as dangerous dieting culture and disordered eating.

After some innovating audience participation (we were asked to vote on paper slips for who we wanted to win the beauty pageant) the play came to its final scene, the most remarkable part of the play. As we wait for the winner of the show to be revealed, the girls all walk onto the stage slowly and begin undoing their elaborate hairstyles, taking off their makeup and help one another to unzip each other’s dresses. I was, and still am, in awe of this scene. With such a powerful ending, my friend and I could not deny that we were tearing up. This scene was a complete embodiment of powerful friendships between women and the coming together of women against the harsh patriarchal values of beauty pageants. The actors finish the play, standing at the forefront of the stage in plain beige body suits which are painted with Trump’s sexist comments.

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‘Beauty is Pain’ exhibited a number of powerful messages throughout, but the real talent and message really resonated within this final scene. There is no doubt that this play addresses the political and social dangers of beauty pageants and sets its piece with wonderfully talented actors, innovative set design and use of technology. ‘Beauty is Pain’ is a beautifully curated piece, for feminist theatre-goers as well as those who want to be awakened into America’s political world through the eyes of Miss USA, this play certainly covers a lot of ground in a truly entertaining way.

Photographs courtesy of Alice Sutton. 

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