Type ‘women laughing with food’ into Google. Really, try it. The classic culprit is women laughing (alone) with salads, but you can see women at all levels of hilarity sharing a good time with all manner of consumables.
The first result that I get is a Tumblr account that mockingly collects stock photos. The second is a Guardian think piece that critiques the way women are portrayed in stock photos and, more broadly, advertising. You’d have to visit Getty Images or similar to actually find a place where the ‘woman laughing with food’ trope is deployed without irony or criticism. But – and this is the important point – these photos still exist and are used on a regular basis. This, and the visual language it is a part of, is a mainstay of advertising.
The four performers that comprise Gracefool Collective are gloomily familiar with this and other reductive representations of women. Every time the music changes to muzak they stop whatever they’re doing, strip to their underwear and start gurningly posing as the Women of Adverts. Rebecca Holmberg moisturises like she she’s lubricating for the possibility of a second skin; Kate Cox hydrates as if the water shortage long predicted by scientists and climate change experts has already happened, and is also sexy; Sofia Edstrand cleans the floor with an alarming sensuality all out of proportion to the hard graft of washing; and Rachel Fullegar holds up a sad lettuce like the Lion King, trilling, “Salad!” as the name of the new Messiah.
This really is too much opens with the four women giving a perfect unison speech that includes spoken stage directions – ‘point’, ‘tight smile’, ‘folds arms defensively’. In it, they hector the audience: ‘You’ve never had it so good.”
This is true – across the first world, women have never had it so good. But ‘good’ is a value measurement that is part of a trajectory; if feminists of all genders stopped where we are and described ourselves as satisfied, we’d be leaving a revolution in action unfinished. Over the course of an hour, in a humorous, chaotic collage, the Gracefools show us just how confused, contradictory, restrictive and self-consciously performative this ‘good’ that woman have is. They tackle the modern obsession with personal taxonomy in a Kafkaesque job interview skit; they explore the onus on women to look ‘presentable’ and ‘feminine’ even in positions of traditionally masculine power; they completely blow the doors off that whole salad thing.
Fullegar steals the show as a socialist beauty queen in a gold bikini, trying to talk fiscal policy, capitalism and the commodification of emotional labour even as she’s expected to flash front teeth and flaunt. Her evolution, over the course of the piece, from anxious but eager to please to fully fucked off, is a joy to watch. I’ve never sat in an audience so delighted to be screamed at and called perverts. Her comic timing is impeccable, both physically and verbally (her galloping turn around the stage in tube socks and a single silver platform heel is a highlight).
She is allowed to shine as the comedy prima, however, because the rest of the Collective work outstandingly as her foils; however rambunctious and occasionally disordered the piece is, the balance between performers is superbly maintained. Edstrand’s narrative journey, for example, is quite as impressive but much subtler. She begins stateswomanish and elegant, climbing over, standing on and upheld by a laboriously supportive Cox and Holmberg as she gives a saccharine acceptance speech: “This really is too much.” She morphs into a 1950s angel-of-the-house type, all contrived high kicks and mincing balletics, applying lipstick at varying degrees of franticness. By the end, she is giving the same acceptance speech again, but this time squat, struggling and burdened by an acerbic Cox on her back, the true limits of her acceptance revealed.
This really is too much is an anarchic montage of a very particular kind of womanhood – white, middle class, educated. It’s less a satire of woman in modern society than it is a satire of a specific, willingly self-satirising milieu, of which much of the spectators are comprised. Though thought-provoking, it isn’t radical, and its audience are altogether too comfortable with its criticisms. Nevertheless, Gracefool Collective has energy and promise. The hilarity is borne of impassioned engagement with contemporary absurdities. This really is too much is a gleeful, compelling piece and the Gracefools are a group of artists to watch.