Mrs Patrick Campbell, Victorian actress and friend of George Bernard Shaw, is reputed to have once said: "I don't mind where people make love, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses." Although depictions of sex on stage have frightened critics - if not horses - ever since, what exactly is it about breaking taboos in public that makes people nervous? And does the concept of "sexual taboo" make any sense in an age where you can watch porn on cable television and visit lap-dancing clubs in any town? London audiences will have a chance to confront such questions later this month with the arrival of Spanish shock troupe La Fura dels Baus. Their version of the Marquis de Sade's 1795 classic, Philosophy in the Bedroom, entitled XXX, is no sedate night-out at the theatre. The updated plot is about the corruption of ingenue Eugenie by three porn actors - and the almost unwatchable climax sees Eugenie organising the gangbang of her own mother in revenge for her moral upbringing.
Other moments in the show are more humorous, but equally confrontational: a naked woman crouches and lifts a pencil with her buttocks; huge video images of copulating couples alternate with pictures of a defecating anus and a pair of ciggie-smoking vaginas chatting to each other. If you've seen other Fura shows, the company's habit of assaulting the audience's senses will come as no surprise. Previous stunts have involved pelting punters with chicken innards, drenching them with water or riding vehicles into them. And this time, it's interactive: you can text-message the group during the show, and, according to the hype, every night the sexual fantasies of one audience member are realised on stage.
"No one should come out of our show thinking, `That was nice'," says director Alex Olle. Not much danger of that: XXX is about sensory overload. One minute you're smirking at a dildo-waving woman, the next you're cringing at the sight of genital mutilation. But what's the point of such attacking theatre? Dramatist Valentina Carrasco believes: "We are trying to make people face some aspects of their own being, especially sexuality. We bring things out into the open. Normally, people watch pornography in the darkness, alone." She argues that most people have no problem with making public intimate things like monogamous love, "but people don't want to show the stuff that comes from our deepest, hidden desires. When sex is related to love, then everything's OK, but when sex is just sex, there's a problem - it's an aspect of intimacy people don't want to expose." So it's the more animal urges - the desire to shag everything in sight, essentially - that is the raw material of taboo. That may be right: taboo, after all, is the way we police distinctions between what is human (good) and inhuman (bad). But what's so transgressive, these days, about de Sade? "You read de Sade and it's like `Oh, my God'," she says. "He puts you in front of an extreme situation and makes it apply to you too." The explicit sexual violence of Eugenie's attack on her mother feeds on basic psychological tensions. But if in XXX this scene feels horrendous, the original is even worse.
"In the book, the final scene is quite hard - the mother's pussy is sewn up after she's been raped by a syphilitic valet," says Carrasco. "But why are we so shocked? The mother is just a symbol of the hypocrisy of a moralistic society." Then she adds: "This also touches [on] taboos about our parents' sexuality, which are very deep. Freud understood this urge to kill our parents. And by watching horrible things on stage you can have a catharsis of your own deepest and darkest desires."
But what about the actors realising the fantasies of members of the audience? Carrasco is a bit cagey about that - it all depends on which country Fura is in. In Spain, one man begged to be flagellated; in Germany, some stripped off on stage. …