When I heard about writer and performer Rachel Mars’ one woman show, Your Sexts Are Shit: Older and Better Letters, I was expecting an hour of laughs and covering my mouth in mock horror. I wasn’t expecting to feel moved.
The show, which I saw in The Studio at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, is incredibly simple and consists of Mars reading out letters from notable figures in history and juxtaposing these words with snapshots of texts from more recent times.
The genesis of the performance came from a friend of Mars who read out loud the “beautiful filthy, honest” sex letters from James Joyce to his long-term partner Nora Barnacle. After that, Mars went in search of other sex and love letters and, with the help of the internet, friends and two sexologists, unearthed letters dating back centuries. She also called for people’s (anonymous) sexts and dating app chats. As a result, Your Sexts Are Shit features letters from Joyce, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mozart, Charles Bukowski, Radclyffe Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt and others. The set is pared down with only a screen, a projector, a few lamps, a table and a record player. Love songs are the soundtrack.
Modern communication is reliant on technology and it’s easy to romanticise an era when contacting a potential beau took effort rather than the ability to swipe right. While we’ve never been more connected (and that’s bloody great), when a stranger slides into your DMs with an unsolicited snapshot of their semi-erect penis, it’s easy to want to bow out of the dating game. At the beginning of the show, the (often comical) sexual chat, condensed to a line and a few emojis, seems lacklustre and throwaway in comparison with the pages and pages written by Joyce, the undying love felt by Eleanor Roosevelt and the passion in Frida Kahlo’s words. But, as the performance progresses, the sexts are often followed by more mundane, human requests like “please can you pick up some more milk from Londis?” or “cat has been sick again”. It’s oddly familiar and touching.
I’m not entirely sure what to think of the evening but I don’t mean that in a negative way. Mars draws interesting conclusions about the absence of (most notably) female recipients of these love letters. “Perhaps she wasn’t important enough,” Mars muses when pointing out that Barnacle’s replies weren’t kept. During the last scene, a recording of a fictional letter (written and performed by Leslie Howard) from the perspective of Barnacle finally gives this absent character a voice. Mars’s performance feels entirely subjective, and through her own exploration of using writing to construct her own identity and the queer female body, she urges us to do the same. How do we write ourselves and for whom do we write?
As I leave the Exchange, I feel surprisingly uplifted. I thought I’d leave rolling my eyes, lamenting all the overly-sexual chat that we (let’s face it, mostly women) receive from potential dates (or, you know, just some bloke who follows you on Instagram). But I see affection in these messages and the everyday relationships, thoughts and desires of people living in the digital age. Here are our modern love notes. In these text boxes, GIFs and emojis, there we are. These are our love stories.
Main image: Rachel Mars’ Your Sexts are Shit attached (Photo Credit: Maurizio Martorana)