Cristian Ceresoli’s award-winning phenomenon arrives in Glasgow having sold out Summerhall in Edinburgh for two years running before seducing half the globe—and it is a perfect statement of intent, particularly within the context of The Arches Behaviour festival. For once, the hyperbole can be completely justified. This utterly mesmerising stream-of-consciousness performance both illustrates the possibilities of what theatre can do, and exemplifies what theatre should be.
In a small space in a half-light, Italian performer Silvia Gallerano sits, naked save for a slash of red lipstick and a little black eyeliner, on a giant chair. The chair serves to infantilise her: several times she self-references ”the small one’, kicking her legs and magnifying certain prosaic incidents as only a little girl can – the child self and adult self uncomfortably co-existing inside the one exposed body.
La Merda defies categorisation: it’s an opera in three acts, a melodrama and, above all, a form of primal scream therapy. It rails against the machismo that pits boys against girls from the get-go in Italian culture, the self-loathing that imposes limitations and identifies bulimia as a means of control, and a grander political chasm between meritocracy is fast becoming a dated symbol.
Gallerano’s father’s death is a trigger for much of her pain. The voice she uses to mimic him (and she is a masterful, mocking imitator) is a guttural roar which sounds like it’s being exorcised from her throat. He may have been ‘a small one’ like her, but his death colours her everyday experiences of living with men – the yearning for a father substitute looms large in her speech, despite her seeming ambivalence towards him.
So she binges and purges to cope.
Binge: Cookies, thighs too big, cannot become a CEO of industry without sucking cocks, misery, milk, spaghetti…
Purge: Try again,vomit, vomit, holler.
Binge: O Ciao, bella, ciao, seeking fame in order to transcend, hunger for applause, diet-induced hunger, disgust, attracting instead weird guys on the subway…
Purge: Screech, strive for courage, become taller, shit it all out.
Pitched between hysteria, screams and demented cackles dissolving into helpless sobs, La Merda is not easy to witness – like a stranger’s breakdown in the street, with onlookers powerless to intervene. Often I wanted to hug Gallerano,and weep with her. There’s no comforting resolution here, or tidy denouement to send you back into the night air with a hop and a skip—just life in all its raw, ugly glory. The metaphorical titular ‘shit’ is every single experience that stopped her succeeding as a woman; her desire to become a famous singer, all-encompassing, making her want to consume her own flesh before it consumes her.
Gallerano’s feminine rage has been compared to that of a mythical goddess—she certainly contains more than shades of Medea. Like these ancient characters, her rage is both something she owns as an individual, and the common property of all the women in the audience tonight who have suffered, who have been coerced, belittled, beaten down, judged, betrayed. Her voice does not just howl into the void. Her attack is much more focused, lucid and deadly.
La Merda will be at Soho Theatre, London, from 15th Apr – 4th May 2014