The show is set on a starkly bleak stage, no decoration, the stage doors at the back all thrown open. A high-pitched giggling and shuffling can be heard from backstage. I sit and wonder whether this clopping and childish laughter is supposed to be reminiscent of a toddler dressing in their mother’s heels and wobbling around. As Gilbert shows herself in one of the door openings before coyly running off, it seems this may be the case: a rendition of hide-and-seek.
Mewings and screams and other more diaphanous noises permeate the space. With Gilbert appearing in a medical body stocking to represent beauty ideals and the pressure upon women to fit into them, even through surgery, the noises become apparent as a manifestation of a patriarchal society disallowing a woman their voice. In fact, only a few actual words are said throughout the entire show. The one most often heard, and the one a women has to be if nothing else, “beautiful”.
Gibert poses like a statue, while beckoning the audience to help her and call her beautiful. When the compliment arrives, she overreacts with gratitude. We also see her cleaning up the stage, but maintaining a semblance of sexiness at all times. She acts like a cat, then has the audience become dogs to hound her with barks. She then repeats the process again by becoming an infantile damsel-in-distress. The cats as women, dogs as men metaphor was especially worrying. Gilbert gradually gets more and more scared as the audience barks at her until we are forced into an unwitting assaulter role chasing Gilbert with sound until she leaps backstage. I found this disturbing and potentially triggering as we are goaded into barking at Gilbert until it becomes obvious she has transformed from cat to human and runs away screaming. The deception of fun turning into a chase scene meant the effect was harrowing, maybe even more so by the audience laughing while Gilbert hung mewing ‘help me’ at us.
However, this show is an hour long. The connection between what is expected of women and how that becomes a distorted beige bandage of lumped together ‘perfection’ grew old quickly. It’s hard to sit in a room and be told the same joke over and over. It is harder still if you sit in a room and have not made the connection between the show and the well-worn feminist argument that women should be more than objects of beauty. My partner was one such person, someone who was lured with the idea of comedy, instead experienced a series of nonsensical movement and sound. They were met with high-pitched squeals, screams and minced, unformed words that didn’t seem to have a clear direction unless you were in on the unending joke.
Unfortunately, nothing in the description prepared us for this. I had no idea there would be little to no dialogue. Without opening up the conversation of what the sounds and imagery represented, it felt like the audience was forced to do the other half of the show, coming to our own conclusions. This works sometimes, but only if everyone is on the same page about what the show is, or if there are meant to be several interpretations available for cerebral perusal. In the myriad of feminist issues, I didn’t expect the same ones to be shoved in my face (literally!) again and again.
That being said, I can see the potential. If this was a five-minute skit, I would have thought it was well-prepared and thought-provoking. If the exploration went deeper, I think I would have enjoyed it. As it was, I feel like I was being hit over the head with how comedic it was supposed to be. Gilbert is a charming performer, and I would look forward to another performance from her, knowing what I know now. She uses a soundscape to create a environment in which to explore societies influence on women and the absurdities that come with it. Going in armed with this knowledge, expecting this, my mindset and absorption of the show would have been profoundly different.
Soft Tissue is a piece of performance art, with tinges of comedy. If presented this way, it does succeed, but as a comedy show, I never got there. I had issues disengaging my expectation from the reality and the show sufferent in my eyes due to that. If I had known the show comprised solely of sound rather than dialogue, I may have had an entirely different experience. That is the Soft Tissue that I wish I saw.
Soft Tissue is currently showing at BATS Theatre, in the newly renamed Random Stage, until Saturday 8 September. Visit the BATS Theatre website for more information or to book tickets.