Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Examining the shit

Shit became a sensation during the Fringe. Aside from its huge portable poster, which gradually became covered in extracts from reviews and deserves semiotic analysis of its own, it won awards from The Arches and Total Theatre and was the talking point of the Summerhall programme. Whether it was necessary for the female performer to be naked, whether the content was rescued by its remarkable interpretation, whether it said more about Italian theatre than society: The Shit offers plenty of roughage for late-night argument.

Against the context of Live Art - something that the Fringe does not contain in any large measure, but is the staple of Glasgow's new theatre scenes - The Shit is not exceptional. The nakedness of a solo female is familiar, since recent graduating shows from the RCS have followed the example of Nic Green and "celebrated" nudity. The monologue focuses on one individual's experience, another trope that has been played out in various pieces at the National Review of Life Art (now defunct). It is in the performance of The Shit that it takes on a surprising vitality: against the usual honesty and  consciously unmannered style of the Live Artist, The Shit brings the tricks and theatricality of the trained actor.

The monologue dwells on three main themes: a woman's relationship to her father (he committed suicide, although her memory is of a man passionate about the nationalists who forged her country and disappointed by the state of the nation), to food (she diets to reduce her thighs, which are a symbol of her body anxiety) and success (for her, a role in an advert is the dream beginning to a career in media). Around these, other themes, including sexual disgust - rooted in an experience at school - and sacrifice are weaved into a despairing narrative that concludes in a sung version of the national anthem that takes its cues from Hendrix's reworking of The Star Spangled Banner and Diamanda Galas' distorted range.

The monologue does not only sketch out the horror of one life: it conjures a picture of an Italian society plagued by corruption, and the assumption of corruption. The celebrities assessed are suspected to have achieved their goals by sucking cock, and the fantasy ambitions of the heroine are described in terms of media attention. Talent is absent: instead, beauty, size and sacrifice are all that counts. When the heroine remembers her father's advice, that hard work and sacrifice will eventually win out, she translates it into sessions of cosmetic torture and a starvation diet.

The particular oppression of women is foregrounded, and the internal oppression of the heroine is presented clearly. Having lost any connection to her own well-being, she struggles against her status - constantly she calls herself "a small one", in regard to both her physical size  and ability.

And for all the talk of the body, and a memorable interlude where her shit is examined and discovered to contain characters from her life and Italy's history, the nudity is rapidly irrelevant. It signifies honesty, in that time-worn Live Art tradition. Only when she covers herself, at the end, in an Italian flag, does it become meaningful beyond this. The applause for the monologue mocks the applause that the character hopesto achieve: dressed in a flag, she hides away the body, as if it is the disgust itself.

The Shit is undoubtedly powerful, clearly connecting the personal to the political. It is engaged with the politics of a country - and this need not be Italy - where appearance has overwhelmed substance. It questions the way that superficial culture, with its attention to surface, can destroy the interior life, reduce ambition and drive to trivial ends before the tremulous voice of the heroine spits out a defiance, mistaking it for a triumphant audition. It's also strangely old-fashioned, even familiar and safe in places: the power is not in the message but the way that it converts an intellectual understanding into an emotional experience.

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