As we enter the space we see a girl and a gorilla sitting on the floor, on one of those compact circular dancefloors that are like a little circus ring. They are sat there a fair while, on display. The audience mostly chatter, although some of us sit silently, staring. There’s a lot of noise pollution coming into this shipping container venue at the heart of the Warren’s pop-up festival complex – the sound of laughter, loud conversations, and clinking bottles seeping in from the courtyard and bar. Somehow, it adds to the pathos of the scene.
The gorilla is just sitting, looking a bit downcast. The girl is grooming herself. Not picking out fleas – although it looks like that at first, but picking at and teasing out ingrowing hairs on her legs. She has porcelain pale skin, sleek dark hair pulled back in a neat dancer’s bun, wide awake eyes, and a smear of red lipstick extending clown-like over her full lips. She has smooth bare legs, and is wearing an old-fashioned, sweetly sexy white corset with straps and lacy bits. She’s a pretty girl. Pretty, slim, smooth, clean, shaved. The gorilla is – hairy. They are handcuffed together. There is no key. Or at least, no one knows where the key might be…
Also inside the ring: a bowl of fruit, and a whole assortment of depilatory materials. Razors, tweezers, scissors. Hot wax is bubbling away. The girl spoons some on to her leg, gets a little white strip, sticks it to the wax and – rip. The man sitting next to me in the front row flinches. The girl isn’t quite satisfied with the result, and starts in with the tweezers. Then, she stares at the gorilla, recoils, gets the pair of scissors and starts to trim the gorilla’s arm hair. There’s a tussle.
When the gorilla’s mask comes off (left to sit at the front of the circle, staring out at us – a nice touch), we see that inside is a girl. Are there female gorillas? Apparently this is a genuine Google search question. There is a name for male gorillas – silverbacks – but no name for female gorillas. We learn all sorts of interesting facts about gorillas from Gorilla: they are an endangered species. Their name comes from the Ancient Greek ‘gorillai’ meaning ‘tribe of hairy women’. They are one of the closest relatives to human beings and share most of the same DNA (95–99%) and many of the same attributes and abilities. Gorillas can be taught English Sign Language. Female gorillas have been known to engage in homosexual behaviour. Human scientists thought at first that this was something to do with attracting males – Gorilla lesbian porn – until they realised (shock, horror!) that it was all about pure sex and personal pleasure.
When Gorilla speaks, it is prosaic, conversational. When Girl speaks, it is poetic: she plays with the sound of letters and words, using assonance, consonance and alliteration. She gives us rhetoric in rhyming couplets – giving Hamlet a run for his money in her soul-searching, questioning, conflicted, coming-of-age musings. To be or not to be – a girl. What is it to be a girl? As opposed to being a gorilla. Sometimes Girl and Gorilla play a game whilst walking in a circle, around the circle. It’s a storytelling game. ‘Once upon a time there was a girl who…’ Round and round they go, handcuffed together forever, a kind of Godot Girl and Gorilla.
Then, there’s the fruit bowl. Juicy strawberries squeezed through the fingers graphically illustrate a story of female shame at the onset of menstruation. A banana strangled into a pulp demonstrates the anger and desire for revenge induced by a memory of male harassment on the streets of Shoreditch. Oh, and there’s also an old-school portable music centre and set of disco lights at the back of the circle – which are put into action for a very lovely dance section set to the Spice Girls’ ‘Two Become One’. But will two become one? Or is it more that two were one, but now have to go their separate ways? Can Girl ever embrace Gorilla’s hairiness? Will Gorilla ever understand Girl’s need to groom herself to a hair-free ideal?
Girl is played by spoken word artist and writer Sophie Ablett. Gorilla is played by theatre-maker and founder of Klein Blue, Grace Strickland de Souza. The show has been devised and co-written by both, with direction by Tamar Saphra – and it is a cleverly crafted and beautifully enacted piece. At 50 minutes it is the perfect length for a two-person show: every word, action and visual image is thought through and has a purpose; the timing is precise; and the onstage rapport between the two actors is great. It is satisfying to see a young company with such a sound grasp of dramaturgy.
What I particularly like is the acknowledgement of ambiguity – yes, yes we know that we have been conditioned by patriarchy, but we do enjoy grooming ourselves. How on earth can we really know what is patriarchal oppression and what is doing what we genuinely want to with our own bodies? Klein Blue have, in the split identity of Girl and Gorilla, found a fabulous metaphor for the inner conflict many women feel about their bodies. They’ve created a clever, funny and artistically robust framework to interrogate questions around the female beauty myth, and to explore agency over our own bodies. Most importantly of all, it is entertaining. Yes, feminism can be fun!
As they raise their arms to take their bow at the end, both now stripped down to matching neutral bodysuits, we note that one woman has shaved armpits, and one doesn’t. That feels good and right.