The Lady’s Not For Walking Like an Egyptian is a performance by Rachel Mars and nat tarrab crossing “all of the words of Margaret Thatcher’s public speeches from the 80s with all of the words of every top ten hit by a female artist from the 1980s” The following article by theatre critic and journalist Matt Trueman was originally published on his website and is reproduced with kind permission.
Warning: Rachel Mars and nat tarrab are infectious. It takes only a few hours of watching the two women at work to fall utterly in love with them as artists. The combination of playful absurdity and questing rigour that motors their process means theirs is a rehearsal room that never stops; one that bubbles with excitement and a relentless, restless energy. There is a constant hum of creation – making, probing, puzzling, laughing – and it all happens at a frenetic pace that scarcely lets up for a minute. It would be exhausting to watch, if watching weren’t such a joy.
Mars, 32, and tarrab, 40, arrived at Ovalhouse with a plan to slam Margaret Thatcher’s words into the lyrics of 80s pop songs by female artists – hence, the inspired title: part-Thatcher, part-Bangles. They come armed with transcripts, song-sheets and a 7-disc set of 80s classics. In other words, they’ve got raw material – and plenty of it – but they’re in search of a form. As their original application puts it: “We are excited to start with such concrete inputs and not yet know the particular means of final presentation.”
explore, expand, explode
Mars expands on this with an example: “One version of this show – the live art version – would literally be all the words just read out. We did propose a durational version. There is that version; the unfiltered version.”
However, and this is what makes Mars.tarrab’s process quite so engaging, they really have no idea what they’re aiming towards or even, for that matter, what exactly they feel or think about the subject in question. The governing motto is to “explore, expand, explode” and it makes for a process that is itself inherently dramatic. Not only is something is at stake, there’s also a very definite time pressure. Both talk of the fear that “on February 12th, there’ll be nothing” [tarrab], “and we’ll have to explain to the audience that we had all this stuff in our heads and didn’t manage to translate anything into something they can actually watch” [Mars]. At the same time, however, their process has a genuine sense of narrative development, in which every discovery breeds new discoveries in turn. That likely explains the contentment that runs contrary to their anxiety; “a trust in this [process] that makes me feel we’re going to be fine,’ says tarrab.
What makes this project unusual for Mars.tarrab, however, is that the subject matter exists outside of themselves. The two women first met in 2007 at a scratch festival in the South West of England. Both were working as solo artists at the time. “We met in a workshop and just went AAAAAH,” tarrab remembers of a four-day process culminating in a scratch performance, “We decided that instead of sleeping together, we’d make some theatre.” Since then, there have been three Mars.tarrab shows: 27 Ways I Will Never Fuck My Mother (2007), Trauma Top Trumps (2008) and Tomboy Blues – The Theory of Disappointment (2011).
“The past three shows have been massively autobiographical,” says Mars, “They’ve come from inside – MUST. SAY. THIS. MUST – so there’s been that impetus of creation and this, very deliberately is much less…We’re clinging to other stuff, because you can only mine your insides so many times. It felt like it might be a more gentle process.”
It’s been three years since Mars and tarrab last worked together and, though it’s never elucidated in full, there’s a sense that it can be a draining collaboration. Not, I suspect, because they clash and end up in conflict, but rather because they spur each other on so constantly. They exacerbate one another and their creative process frequently tips into chain reaction. Every offer spawns a new offer; every question, a new question. One of their regular phrases is, “and the opposite is also true.” It’s a mark of a process open to complexity and conundrum.
On top of that, their performative relationship hinges on competition. They look and perform like a double-act; Mars’s short, distracted goof next to tarrab’s tall, zealous straight-woman. Equally, they are acutely aware that every element of performance needs a game of some sort. Rivalry, one-upmanship and challenge are key tools. “We have quite a combative, physically impactful way of working together and bringing stuff up from the inside,” says tarrab, “This feels gentler.” The three-year break also means that they’re having to work out how they collaborate in early stages. “It’s almost like re-finding ourselves in each other.”
This time, though, they’re coming from very different places. Mars was born in 1980 and can’t particularly remember the 80s. Until this week, she hadn’t presumed Material Girl was about textiles and, to tarrab’s horror, didn’t really know who Dempsey and Makepeace were. Tarrab, meanwhile, was eight at the decade’s start and 18 by its end. She began protesting against a number of Thatcher’s policies. At the start of the process, she realised she knew some of the songs by heart “without knowing that I know them. These are my songs. Some of them are in me.”
As Mars explains, that discrepancy is also unusual for them: “Our first show was about loss and a bit about Jews. The second show was about family.” (The third was about mutual tendencies towards tomboyism.) “So those are things that we absolutely share. We’d go: ‘And me, and me, and me.’ But this is weird. It might be another way of alienating ourselves from the process, because normally we do same-same.”
Giving ourselves ten minutes to make the shittest shit show ever
Thanks to the combination of this novelty and the time away, there’s an understandable anxiety at the start of the process. They tell me later they began by giving “ourselves ten minutes to make the shittest shit show ever.” It’s a tactic they use regularly, as if taking off the pressure of having to create something worthwhile. “They were quite interesting,” tarrab interjects, “We found some really interesting images.” Mars responds: “That always happens.”
The first few days were mostly taken up with getting familiar with that raw material, sorting it almost thematically and discussing their own relationships (or lack thereof) to different bits. Out of this, they could make a floor map – a spider-diagram spanning the entire rehearsal room – which functioned more or less like a human-sized board game. Land on a square (or lily pad, as they call them), and go, talk about its topic, Section 28, say, or the Belgrano. During this, one will fire commands and physical tasks at the other, always trying to overwhelm and short-circuit the rational, calculating part of the brain, always looking for surprises.
This mirrors the main body of Mars.tarrab’s process: a cycle that churns through words and images, removing them one step at a time from their origins. It starts with a freewriting session: five minutes, go. An alarm – a calm iPhone ding – sounds. “Hello,” says one, returning from a trance. “Hello,” says the other. These scrawled, half-legible texts are then read out. They are often infused with the process – admissions of fears and frustrations creep in or pop out – but also contain a raw response, swelling towards impassioned, angry exclamations. Often, they’re shocked and amused by what’s come out.
“What if we have to outsource the show to China?” / “I don’t even know the words to Walk Like an Egyptian.” / “When will self-belief not be arrogance?” / “Labia frontiers…clitoral warheads” / “Margaret Thatcher is a superhero.”
Whittling the mass down to a single choice phrase
What happens next is a selection process that whittles the mass down to a single choice phrase, which, in turn, becomes the title for a performance-cum-installation-moment that must be created. Again, there’s the challenge of an impossible task and, again, the caveat of the shittest show possible. That’s when topics of interest are chucked back in. Instructions come thick and fast; do this, do that, bop, twist it, flick it. So today, Thursday of week one, tarrab is lying on her shoulders, stretching her feet up the wall and sweeping, while explaining Hanif Kureishi’s notion that Thatcherism underpinned contemporary celebrity culture. These performances are probed, chipped away, refined. Then its back to the freewrite phase, which will, of course, itself absorb and reflect the cycle(s) before it. “Essentially,” says Mars, “we start the day with a freewrite and end the day with a freewrite, but we’d have never got to the second one without that mad jumble in between.”
Once again, it’s always driving towards impulse, divorced from careful, considered planning. The impossible tasks further split that consciousness and by slamming together multiple performance elements – text, movement, action – the combinations are even more unexpected. Yet, it’s still tightly controlled enough to remain fruitful, if not necessarily pinpointedly relevant. (Where’s the fun in that?) What’s more, it lifts dry text, often overlaying it with some unexpected tonal quality. It also means that, for all their nerves about ending up with nothing, everything that gets explored ends up as a performable item.
For a simple cycle of instructions, actually, there are a lot of different things going on here: at base, the simple generation of material, but simultaneously, the twisting, entwining and colliding that takes it to the next level. In playing the cycle through, allow each rotation to inspire the next, it both churns the material, folding it in and back on itself. To use an appropriately 80s comparison, it’s not unlike a Rubik’s cube done in reverse, twisted at speed until the colour-blocks shuffle into something unexpected.
The practice comes via the performance artist Stacey Makishi and, before her, from Goat Island, and it’s there you find an interesting secondary benefit. Mars explains: “It divorces you from your own ego, because everything’s disposable. You’re not attached to your work. You’re immediately handing it over to someone else, so you’re not sure what’s yours. What’s brilliant is that I never know how we got to anything or who had the initial idea, because that’s completely irrelevant.”
And the opposite is also true, as Mars.tarrab say. Beneath the surface, always niggling somehow, is the fact that the two women have very different experiences and, accordingly, understandings of the decade. Occasionally, it bursts through to the surface and, eventually, they embrace it rather than suppress it. I first notice it overtly when they’re playing around with the idea of the body as data-graphic, using each other to make graphs – a technique they’ve used before (Tomboy Blues) that has its roots in Alex Kotoski’s ideas about human development and digitality. With a knowing over-simplicity, they map out the bits of them that were made in the 80s and, given their respective heights and ages, Mars keeps coming out on top, despite laying less claim to the decade. It’s immediately obvious that the moment contains the seeds of a classic double-act routine; tarrab growing more and more competitive, Mars more and more bemused.
From here, Mars increasingly starts to take on a role as the archetypal child of the 80s. It’s as if she can never completely understand all the fuss about Thatcherite free-market economics. “I’ve no alternate understanding to a free market economy,” she explains later, “This is what we are. This is what we do.”
So, while she’s happy to stand against the more callous, almost stock, Conservative villainy over Section 28, strikes and sunken battleships, she’s also chirpy about some of the consequences, smartphones and 80s nostalgia. By contrast, tarrab’s role is to boil over to the point where it breaks the show with an absolute rejection of Thatcherism that refuses to even give it airtime. She refuses to lend her voice and her body to “that woman.” During this particular rant, Mars proceeds to silence her by chucking milk down her throat; an action that resonates with the breaking of union power and, as they discuss in rehearsal, knocks into the one million ignored protestors that marched against the Iraq war. (One audience member would later tell tarrab about a Margaret Thatcher quotation. Asked about her greatest achievement, Thatcher replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour.”)
Tarrab’s ultimate showstopper had been simmering throughout the process and, again, was eventually embraced. It was clear right from the start: “I know that we’re not going to make a show about Margaret Thatcher, even though we keep on talking about making a show about Margaret Thatcher. At no point in my career do I ever want to have made a show about Margaret Thatcher. When I’m 94 and in my dotage, in my care home, no part of me wants to look back on that.”
It takes Mars by surprise. “What does that mean?” she asks, “What are we making a show about then?”
Eventually, this triggers a crisis point in the process. Towards the end of the second week, Thursday, I return after three days away, during which Mars and tarrab have gone through a familiar cycle of frustration and break-through. Day one, they characterise as, “Take the commission money. Go to Puerto Rica.” Day two is defined by tears, both about the process and the wider world. Day three is about simplification, returning to the brief to, as tarrab says, “do what it says on the tin. I’d forgotten that we even had a tin.” It’s a classic creative cycle: Crisis, Purge/Catharsis, Create.
The crisis phase, they subsequently realised, was also a result of that initial pressure, that fear. While they had drawn confidence from framing the run as a work-in-progress, it was rather undercut by the early discovery that the first two performances had sold out. “We’ve had 104 people, audience members, in the room with us,” explains Mars. On the third day, they covered up the mirrors in the rehearsal room and blocked the window on the door. It has an instantly calming effect, according to tarrab. “That felt much more whole.”
Then they overcame their own – specifically tarrab’s – overriding resistance to the subject matter. Quite organically, it erupted in the room: “I don’t want to give any creativity to her. I don’t want to give me body to her,” tarrab burst out.
Voiced so vehemently, Mars says, “that thought opened a door and it was like ‘Hello! Here’s your show.’” That afternoon they created the milk silencing and the body-mapping sequences.
The sudden lurch forward reminds me of something Mars said at the start: “We have to find ways to give ourselves permission to make shows and one of them is to go, ‘We don’t know.’” Here that admission – and with it an awareness that they’re not going to produce the definitive show – allows them to return to their original ideas; smashing songs into speeches with a nod to the Two Ronnies, starting with what they call “the 80s nostalgia show,” playing the sinking of the Belgrano with space hoppers and snorkels. It frees them up to embrace Mars’ naivety and tarrab’s resistance, bringing in the artistic honesty they both strive for and thrive on. Mostly, though, it allows them to make a show and, five days later, to get up onstage (albeit “slightly by the seat of our pants”) in front of an audience. Some may argue that to embrace failure in this way – and Mars.tarrab are far from alone in doing so – means you always end up at the same point, whatever the subject or show. For theatremakers prone to questioning questions, those not content to rest on assumptions and easy conclusions, however, it’s absolutely vital; without it, there could be no show.
What surprises me about the final stint of their process, in which Mars.tarrab first order, then hone their material into a (loose) performance script, is that they actually enjoy it. Seeing them sat at a laptop, debating textual details, is a surprise. It doesn’t fit with the manic, flailing generative process that has come before. That’s not to say it’s frustration-free. Quite the opposite, the sense is of gritted teeth and punching through, forcing each other to stay at the laptop and grind out the words.
It also provides a mark of how well they compliment each other though: Mars, the more analytical, holds the structure in her head; tarrab, the more emotive. At the start, both explained that they were out to take more care of one another en route, but it seems to me that they naturally do so anyway. Whenever I turn up, they’re eager to update me on their process and those conversations, though ostensibly for my benefit, actually function as a check-in between the two of them. They are almost constantly attuned to what’s going on in the room; frustrations swirling beneath the surface; loose ends waiting to be, not tied exactly, but examined – that sort of thing. In discussion, they frequently end up finishing one another’s sentences.
I still don’t know what we’ve made
After the week’s run, we sit down for lager shandies in Aldgate. “I still don’t know what we’ve made,” says Mars, “We’ve made a lot of images, but I’m not sure I know what all the possible readings of those images were, in a way that we’d normally know the things people might get from it.”
Me, I got a huge amount from it. Not least, a level of depth about Thatcher’s term – particularly on Section 28 and the specifics of the Belgrano’s sinking, that the ship was retreating – that went way beyond the iconic milk snatcher-free marketeer figure you see in Billy Elliott: the Musical or David Eldridge’s Market Boy. Also, an alternative counterculture to the postcard image of the 80s, the mods and rockers of post-punk and This is England; a rare female perspective that gets blotted over.
Mostly though, it made me think about legacy and irrevocability, that Thatcherism and the free market so shifted the rules that there’s no going back. Listen to pop lyrics and, set against Thatcher’s words, you hear their empty vacuity, there heteronormative presumption; Stock Aitken Waterman hollowing and imposing in a bid for market domination. Power is popularity. Popularity is power. And no-one knew that better than Thatcher; callously conniving to unite the nation in the run up to elections with the Falklands War and her bullishly homophobic rhetoric around Section 28 (“Good heterosexuals are being killed by bad homosexuals.”); quashing dissenting voices that would proffer an alternative. An alternative that now, has been lost.
True, The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian as it was performed in Oval was scattergun and still somewhat spider-diagram-like, but it is has real meat to it. All it needs is a skewer.
Matt Trueman is a freelance theatre critic and journalist, and writes regularly for the Guardian, the New Statesman, Time Out and the Stage. He’s also had work published in the Independent, the Financial Times and Theatre du Zeit among other publications.