When a performer coughs it’s an interruption, an unplanned blip in the action. We sit up, attentive to the derailment, and we are reminded of the body that stands in front of us. It is a moment when the body interjects, when it revolts against any structural or narrative confines and makes itself known in a great expulsion of air. It is an intimate transgression; it is a sign of real precarity.
Peggy Shaw begins the one-woman show by warning that she has an incurable cough which may appear at any time. Surrounded by screens, the main one being green, Shaw is suited and standing holding a bottle of water and an orange. Shaw and Lois Weaver of Split Britches are internationally celebrated for their off-kilter, satirical and queer performance pieces which are often executed in cabaret/vaudevillian style. The work is usually ‘personal, bordering on private’. RUFF is no exception: Shaw meditates on the very real stroke she had in 2011, its catalysts, and its lingering effects.
Reliant on three wheeled screens which scroll through the script, Shaw performs comedic yet vulnerable choreography with the objects around her, and emphasises a dynamic relationship between her and the text, the sound cues, the green screen displays, and the props which she leaves with the audience. She travels through Leonard Cohen lip-syncs, rhyming name-game songs, and educational acronyms to reach a moment of reckoning: a moving image of herself.
That of course is what we as an audience have witnessed throughout the piece. But it is not through our own eyes that we see a girl in a green dress. Shaw asks us to partake in her own introspection through outward exhibition. And it is here where there exists a similar sort of transgression that’s found in a cough. It’s not just in witnessing a human react to the world around them. It is the courageous, even rebellious invitation to engage with the driving forces in that human, the churning of their own existence, the precarious nature of their own body. It is to be privy to their deep-seated and deeply private self-reflection.
RUFF hilariously and poignantly contemplates not only the ways in which we cast back ourselves to ourselves, but the sometimes startling space between us and our image, a space made real by the physical, the temporal, and the emotional. For Shaw, to offer her own reflection(s) to the world seems like a natural and necessary act, as simple and straightforward as expelling air.
RUFF was on at the Barbican. For more information, click here.