Brighton Festival 2016
Initially this feels like a good old nostalgic wallow, but not for long. As Aggiss follows the timeline of a woman as she passes through progressive stages of life, she references societal expectations around sexuality and examines how class and cultural attitudes impact on women’s bodies and lives. A darkly hilarious romp exploring how society deems women ‘ought to behave’.
Before attending this show I noticed two posts on my Facebook feed; one of an old lady shuffling along then having her bag snatched by a passing youth on a motorbike – she then uses a remote control to blow up the motorbike. The other was some footage of a grey-haired woman, aged around 60-70, dancing in Ibiza. Both had millions of ‘likes’ and comments such as ‘You go, girl’. But the message was still one of ridicule and incredulity – old ladies are not supposed to behave like that.
Liz Aggiss’ new show, Slap & Tickle, addresses and smashes through this taboo. A thoughtful, yet highly accessible and entertaining solo performance in three acts, Aggiss begins by drawing from a rich tapestry of sources including her own childhood memories, popular culture and the English education system. Initially this feels like a good old nostalgic wallow, but not for long. As she follows the timeline of a woman as she passes through progressive stages of life, she references societal expectations around sexuality and child rearing, examines how class and cultural attitudes impact on women’s bodies and lives, and how our social codes and shaming continue to stigmatise the way women ‘ought to behave’ right through to later in life when they become senior citizens.
In this piece Aggiss revisits the style of her early work. There is a feel of watching a performance from the 1920s, with dramatic lighting casting shadows suggesting early expressionist films. Aggiss uses fragmented Grotesque Dance techniques, stuttering and staccato, which further suggest the flickering effect of a vintage movie, and which echo her past work as the timelines both personal and societal loop and interweave. The music contributes overtly to both the meaning and enjoyment of the show. Extracts from children’s TV shows and phrases from books evoke the world of the young girl as she begins to negotiate the territory of being female – a poppet or a princess – in a world of many rules regarding her body and behaviour, wearing a dress evocative of Cinderella as portrayed in the Ladybird book. There is a sequence that conjures up the then-trendy ‘Movement to Music’ classes, which took place in schoolrooms all over the country in the 1960s. Music hall ditties emphasise the farcical nature of the subject material – ‘Cheer up, Darlin’, it might never happen’. The ‘Good Old Days’ – a golden glow and a guffaw cast over mucky underside of humiliation and lost opportunity.
Darkly twisted versions of Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3 and Que Sera reveal uncomfortable truths about the preconceptions of women’s roles in society and the perennial abuse – physically, verbally and mentally – meted out on an almost daily basis.
‘But Hey! Lets have a party!’ In each of the two intervals, we are treated to party games – hilariously announced in a 1950s’ children’s TV – style by Emma Kilbey. Of course, there’s a twist to the games – an undercurrent – we always have to be vigilant, nothing is quite as innocent as it’s made out to be, we need keep up our guard even when we’re playing…
As issues of sex and sexuality are explored, we are thrown violently from darkness to light as the young girl learns that she must not mention her desire or lust. As the mature woman, elegantly lit with the silhouette of a Vogue model complete with stylish hat (or is that to hide her face, so we fragment further and focus solely on her body?), and the language directed at her changes as she negotiates the expectations towards her regarding the subject of children. This is the darkest section of the show as Aggiss challenges the most sacred cow of cultural dictates – the ’bad mother’ – as she continually switches us back and forth between the world of buffoonery and savage social commentary. The baby becomes a ventriloquist’s doll, but who tells us that she is ‘frightened that we’re going to tell her what to do’ – transporting us back to the world of the little girl.
In the final act, the world of the post-menopausal woman is explored. The ‘Old Boot’, the crone. There is a further investigation of sexuality including a hilarious version of Depeche Mode’s Master and Servant sung by Aggiss in spoken word-style. The show finishes with a celebration of wisdom and sexual maturity.
Aggiss’s desire was to ‘maintain female visibility, to snatch the dance performance space from the clutches of youth’ – and with this show she has achieved that and more. This work gets under the skin, beneath the words, and viscerally helps the audience to understand how society has prevented women from being seen and heard. The message is clear – we need to examine our own cultural expectations, watch out for the platitudes and look forward to aging ‘(dis)gracefully’, dancing in Ibiza and blowing up motorbikes.