“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir famously began Le Deuxième Sexe. In our most relevant and challenging feminist discourse, which debates the constraints and harbours of gender, and questions the limits of conventional medical denotations of sex, this statement barely needs parsing. It forms the bedrock of our understanding of the traditional gender binary: ‘woman’ is a performance; ‘femininity’ is as much a ‘female’ trait as the black-and-yellow stripes are the whole essence of the beehive. We are vessels of a performance whose directors are multiple, but never absolute.
The discussion of the making of ‘woman’ is a worthy discussion, an important discussion, at times a painful discussion. It can also sometimes be a very dry discussion, to the extent that if you made it through my first paragraph you will probably need a glass of water. But when Liz Aggiss takes the stage to have her say, it’s a discussion that cheerfully includes bunting with cocks and balls on. Slap & Tickle is the fart in the church of feminist discourse.
Divided into three acts, Slap & Tickle is a vaudevillian journey through the Ages of Woman. It’s crammed with musical hall leitmotifs; Aggiss punctuates her subversive nursery rhymes and joyously grotesque phrases with shouts of, “Come on everybody! Let’s have a party! Oh, let’s all go down the Strand, have a banana.” There’s a giddy, sinister air to the whole show – the three acts are bookended by games of pass-the-parcel and throw-the-balloon, narrated by a fruity 1950s children’s TV voice that seems on the verge of orgasm or murder (a brilliant turn from Emma Kilbey).
The first act explores the world of the girl-child and the insidious nature of the fairy tales and nursery rhymes than reify societal mores. If I’ve made that sound pretty arid, I should say that Aggiss swans on-stage in a voluminous gold dress, reveals a leg with flirtatious menace, and later fishes around in a pair of oversized gym knickers to pull out a collection of ping pong balls which bounce all over the floor. “Are there any little angels in the house?” she coos. “Any angels? Any poppets?” Then: “Are there any nuisances? Any precocious brats?”
The second act draws on similar Carry On humour, beginning with Aggiss in a chic New Vogue black-and-white dress, striking high fashion poses across the floor, and winds up with underwear full of luscious curly ginger hair and a genuinely disturbing turn with a misshapen puppet, which Aggiss dangles from a noose over her shoulder as she describes the journey of a woman who experiences pregnancy, abortion, childbirth and bad motherhood. (In many ways, this was the bravest and most disturbing section, and although the jolly humour about weak vaginal floors and incontinence were a welcome distraction, I also felt they served to undermine the savagely, uncompromisingly bleak stroll into the darker material that had preceded it.)
The final act is the performance that the audience have been prepped for. It is an anarchy of what Aggiss calls ‘reasons to be cheerful’ and revolves around sexual empowerment, particular in what we coyly call the ‘older generation’. There’s absolutely no coyness in Aggiss rendition of Depeche Mode’s ‘Master and Servant’, or in her incredible closing image – crawling on all fours to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, bare-arsed with a pony tail waving over her bum, a faint sly smile playing over her lips. It’s a thrillingly emancipating fuck you.
Despite the distinctly chaotic children’s-party-turned-orgy atmosphere than she generates, Aggiss is a disciplined performer and the movement language she employs, though largely overshadowed by other elements of the piece, are crisp, staccato and exaggerated, drawing on the hard lines of German Expressionism and the fragmented shock of the body exposed under strobe lights. Interestingly, although most of Slap & Tickle is spoken directly to the audience, with provocatively front-facing choreography, it draws on a private vocabulary of insinuation and allusion. The sing-songs, the children’s TV snippets, the nursery rhymes, the pantomime airs – they are all logical in their place, but their logic is Aggiss’s own. Slap & Tickle is an enjoyable, sometimes facile but often exciting synecdoche, a performance of performativity.