Sh!t Theatre are Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole. Their last show, Letters to Windsor House, explored the impact of gentrification on London through their attempts to trace the previous tenants of their rented flat in Hackney. Their most recent show DollyWould is about Dolly Parton.
It follows Becca and Louise on a trip to Dolly’s theme park, Dollywood, in Tennessee, as they try to get closer to their idol. Researching the trip (booking flights, etc.), they discover another local attraction: the Tennessee Body Farm. The ‘farm’ takes donations of bodies after death and then leaves them lying around until they decompose, so that scientists can trace the effects of time and bacteria on the corpses.
As the show points out, in a soundtrack of multiple interviewers’ voices asking Dolly about her weight, her age, her new boobs, her big hair, Dolly Parton’s own body is notorious for her refusal to give a shit about staying within the ‘respectable’ limits society has set for women’s bodies. Dolly has huge plastic boobies at the age of 71 because she wants them. She’s not going to decompose for a long time yet.
In the last line of the play, Louise, playing Dolly on the night she entered herself into a drag queen Dolly-look-alike competition, holds hands with Becca, playing Dolly’s best friend and possible lesbian partner Judy, and whispers “I will never die”.
Dolly Parton’s boobs are also the reason the first mammal in the world cloned from an adult cell is called Dolly (the sheep) – the cell that provided her DNA was taken from a mammary gland. Sh!t Theatre like this fact, I think, partly because they are interested in boobs and partly because they are interested in reproduction – more specifically, in the impossibility of exact reproduction in performance.
So their work uses a lot of phone photos, screengrabs, 30-second handheld video recordings projected onto a back wall, like bits of a documentary made by people that use Paint as their main design tool. And they’re always slightly in tension with the performance onstage: slides going past just a bit faster than Becca and Louise can describe them, sudden blurts of sound, the fact that they’re wearing full smeary white-face onstage but no make up in the videos. At one point, they explain that they had an argument, at Dollywood, about driving to visit the Body Farm; Louise wanted to, Becca didn’t. They got pissed at each other, and then at Jen, their manager, for not filming their authentic disagreement. Their relationship breaks down and rebuilds itself through the cracks in its own performance.
I care a lot about that relationship, a lot for someone who doesn’t know them at all, who has only ever seen a performance of their friendship, or sort of. There’s a line that references Letters to Windsor House – “one for the fans” – another show that also let the audience see the tensions in their friendship, living and working together. One night they have an argument and Louise tries to kill herself by jumping off their balcony. She lands, luckily, stupidly, in the net for catching pigeons just under their window, and Becca’s reaction to the thought of losing her is to have a nosebleed and start her period at the same time.
Even so, they’ve had another fight between the two shows, another nearly make-or-break moment, and so it feels, to the fans, like they’re having them all the time, like they can’t hold on. A scene where they cling to each other, whited faces out to the audience, arms clutched behind each other’s backs and they say their lines at double-speed (a description of the journey to Dollywood from the airport, I think) and Louise keeps gesticulating, letting go, and Becca keeps telling her, “Hold me, hold me” and then she says, “is it because you can’t you remember your lines if you don’t use your hands?” and they improvise a solution where Louise wraps her right leg around Becca so she can do both.
The night after I went to see DollyWould, I went to see Split Britches’ Retro(per)spective. Split Britches are lesbian feminist performance artists Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. The company was founded in New York in 1980 and Retro(per)spective is a look back through their archives, having worked together for forty years, a medley of early performances reproduced from the perspective of late middle/early old age.
One of the performances they recreate is from ‘Anniversary Waltz’ (1990), in which Peggy plays Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, lip-syncing to Elizabeth Taylor, and Lois plays Brick, lip-syncing to Paul Newman. The sketch is short and set on and around a table with a pink satin curtain draped as backdrop. Peggy wears a dark blue dress, long gloves; Lois wears a too-big suit, blonde hair slicked back – one of them reclines on the table while the other one stalks around it. Lois stumps around heavily, propped up by a crutch, knocking back a drink in a big blue plastic tumbler; Peggy sweeps her hair off her bare shoulders, waves her slim arms around desperately.
In 2017, they have an argument about wearing a long black wig to do the sketch; Peggy rejects it. She has short, curly, greying hair now, flopping in an Elvis quiff; she’s wearing a black suit, white shirt, loose red tie throughout the show. Lois has a big brown bob, is wearing a plain black dress and heels. They do the sketch again, lip-syncing to their own lip-sync playing on a video behind them. A look-alike competition. They’re butch and femme playing femme and butch playing butch and femme. The wig lies on the floor behind the table. It’s hard for Peggy to cross her legs and she uses Lois’s shoulder for support standing up. The movements are choreographed, their voices-that-aren’t-their voices are played again; it’s almost the same but it’s not the same at all.
Things become different when you try to clone them. Of course they do. Because bodies age and we change our minds. Shit happens.
In the post-show discussion talk, everyone is stressing out about Trump and neoliberalism in the internet age. There was an energy in the 80s, most people agree, even under Reagan and Thatcher, that made queer politics feel less hopeless.
Yeah, but. It can still be an act of resistance to publicly queer your body, to refuse to conform to the ideals of femininity or masculinity that a capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative society enforces. It can still be an act of resistance to be fat or to be old. Peggy asks, “how much would you pay to see a lesbian grandmother’s legs?”
It can be an act of resistance to ‘not do it right’, to be shit, to be cheap, to make something provisional, transitional, transitory.
I fucking love shit aesthetics in performance. I want every show to reject gloss. Reject the representation of power. Reject successful representation. Lose its own look-alike competition. Embrace failure. Hug another human being with your leg. Show me love, warping over time, growing old and shit and queer and tired, clinging on.