Two performers in white bathing suits are in a bath. It is dark. One starts to hum. The other joins her in acapella harmonies that swirl around them. It sounds a bit like ‘Summertime’. The open third and fifth harmonies morph into counterpoint, dissonance and vocal fry. The lights creep up, so infinitesimally slowly that I wonder whether they are really there or my eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark. The performers start to speak, in unison, accompanying their words with synchronised movements. ‘My mother always told me you can cure almost anything with a hot bath. My mother died last night. My mother died last night.’
Downstage stands a microphone in a pool of light. Cassandra (played by both performers) tries out different eulogies for her mother, recasting her in different guises: the perfect woman, the woman who took no shit from anyone, the woman who never ever ate a French fry because she was worried about getting fat. Cassandra cannot say any of these things because she has lost her voice.
Mouthpiece, created and performed by the virtuosic Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, is far more than Cassandra’s situation. Through a combination of voice work, physical theatre and text, the piece deftly captures the inner conflicts Cassandra feels as a woman, and the social forces involved in the production of gender.
‘“Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine…women’s authority in newly distinctive ways.’ (Naomi Wolf, writing in the Guardian)
In Mouthpiece, the voice is a visceral metaphor and marker of gender acculturation. However, Sadava and Nostbakken suggest such vocal ticks are more complicated than unfeminist self-sabotage, as Wolf supposes them to be. They do this not just through technical passages on the production of sound in the body, but also through their vocal versatility in performance, as dialogue segues into sound.
Squeakily high-pitched and bouncing up and down, the performers step out of character to ask two male volunteers from the audience to move the bath for them.
‘Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Three steps forward. Two steps backward. Just on that mark. Thank you sooooo much.’
The men are sent back to their seats. The performers pick up the bath and move it to where it is supposed to be.
Having a show at the fringe a mouthpiece and the performers are conscious of that responsibility. There is a moment when one reflects on her privilege, as a white, cis, heteronormative woman from Canada, funded by government arts money. ‘Why should anyone listen to you?’ As a woman, she reminds herself, she could have it a lot worse. She lists acts of violence against women. While this act of privilege checking is important, it also seems to gesture towards a pressure in the opposite direction that can prevent women speaking out. It is not just a fear of being labelled an ‘angry woman’, but, perhaps, a fear that she is not oppressed enough, or not feminist enough to be worthy of being heard.
The focus on Cassandra’s relationship with her mother is an effective way of excavating how femininity is taught and learnt. Cassandra tries to differentiate herself from her mother. She eats French fries, not because she likes them, but because she wants to be perceived as the kind of woman who eats French fries. She wants to be perceived as someone who doesn’t care about that stuff (weight, appearance). But her performance of not caring reveals how much she cares. Like her mother, she so desperately wants to be liked, particularly by men. This inheritance makes her angry but she does not seem to be able to shake it.
This resonated with me as a female critic. I worry that my desire to be liked sometimes hinders my theatre criticism and that my reluctance to pass judgement is gendered. In the same article I quoted earlier, Naomi Wolf draws a parallel between speaking and writing, which she links with women getting fewer Firsts at university than men. Yet Wolf’s exhortation to young women to be more declarative is not so far off from the infuriating advice to ‘write like a man’. There are other forms of writing that are as valid. If you dismiss someone’s voice because they upspeak, maybe you’re not listening hard enough.
Mouthpiece is on as part of Canada Hub at Summerhall, Edinburgh until August 27, 2017. Book tickets here.