Wrapped in cloth gauze, a modified hijab of virginal white, Ella Gilbert plummets around the stage in bold and often uncomfortable movements. Imagine an alien shapeshifter forced to become a woman on Planet Earth, to operate under the complex and contradictory behaviours of femaleness. That’s what Gilbert embodies here. A body horror of female sex at war with itself; gender performativity as a double-edged sword.
Consider the way Gilbert infantilises her voice and movements, playing baby doll or ditsy – a grotesque parody of, say, Marilyn Monroe. The way she plays coy, asks for help, trips up and crawls around. The way she prowls like a cat or Catwoman. She skirts the hazy edge between sexual, infantile, maternal and animal.
Other unstable combinations are posed to us again and again, though often saying the same thing: I contain multitudes. These multitudes are often exaggerated, to the point of becoming Bouffon-like. The result is a character constantly performing, under pressure to behave particularly, female rage boiling under the surface.
It feels lazy to compare the work to Julia Croft’s Power Ballad from earlier this year, but this is the other side of the coin. Language is almost completely absent, replaced by squeals, squawks and whimpers. What’s left is the body and body politics. The flesh and the physical yielding to expectation. Movements and vocalisations are gendered, aching to break free from the vessel, straining against the skin.
And, like Power Ballad, the thesis isn’t academic and didactic. It lives on stage, bouncing off the walls and bristling with ambiguities. Most of all, it’s funny, playful and utterly theatrical.
What the show reveals, intentionally or not, is an absence of the private self. The public image of womanhood is scrutinised and satirised under a microscope, leaving no room for the deeply personal. In the constant sea of gender performativity, self is the first thing to drown. After all, how can any person hope to be true to themselves when they’re forced to juggle a myriad of contradictory personae? To be sexy, sweet, ditsy, strong, pure, flirty, all in one? It’s a somewhat existentially terrifying proposition that is softened by the show’s humour.
For a show that’s so explicitly about public faces, the piece begs for more cultural context to rub up against it. Because the way our bodies perform is always contingent on our surroundings and not all surroundings are the same. The limited audience interaction feels like an attempt to remedy this. To have the audience bark at her, to dance for them, to be fed by them. To bring the external world into the space and reflect the complexity of the social environments that the body must navigate. But, while charming, these games lack a strong sense of purpose or clarity. They feel more like gimmicks rather than invitations or challenges to engage with the content of the show.
The untouched Basement Studio, while giving focus to Gilbert’s performance, also feels empty rather than raw at times. Where is the messy and often overlooked fluid of the human body? She’s probably wise to evoke some of these moments through imagination alone, but I can’t help but long for more vivid and tangible representations of blood, piss, tears and more. To see Gilbert and her ideas unwrapped, rather than bandaged up like a wound.
Soft Tissue is a rich and layered piece of theatre, pulsating with meaning and begging for close readings. The repetition of the performance occasionally crosses the line from comedic effect to feeling like the sinew of the show has stretched a bit thin, but it’s ultimately the virtuosity of Gilbert’s physicality and her ability to embody her ideas that makes it compelling to watch. To juxtapose feminine with the masculine. The awkward with the erotic. The playful with the violent. The show might not be fully realised in the space, but it’s fully inhabited in her bones.
Soft Tissue plays at The Basement until 30th September.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe