‘Contra’, by Laura Murphy

Review from: Summerhall, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 3rd August 2019

Laura Murphy is the first British artist to be awarded a prestigious and competitive CircusNext Laureateship since Iona Kewney in 2012. Iona Kewney was the first since Ockham’s Razor in 2002. The programme seeks out contemporary circus creators of ‘singularity, creativity, and artistic excellence’. The British circus scene has not generally been known for this kind of boundary-pushing, thought-provoking work.

Laura has two sides to her. She’s an aerial rope artist. And she’s a feminist. And of course she has more sides to her than that. But when the world tries to split everything into binaries, what space is left for the identities that fall through the gaps? In Contra, Laura connects deeply ingrained conventions of gender roles to her own personal experiences in a way I find instantly relatable. She’s wry, humorous, sad and stern in turns. She is naked, literally and – through her confessional speeches – figuratively.

A hanging rope dominates the space, a tempting snake, a phallic substitute that demands attention. Towards the end, it comes into balance as a cohabiting presence that must be negotiated, it’s length manipulated and gripped; an unstable support, but a known quantity. I didn’t think those things when I was watching, but they build in my mind now as I reflect on the multiple modes of meaning embedded in the show’s DNA. Entertaining and relatable as Contra is, it is also an intellectually rigorous piece of work. Hardly surprising as Laura is about to earn her doctorate from Sheffield University in performance practice.

She takes a bite of the forbidden fruit, and begins to know herself. An array of parts that make her special; revealed, then hidden away. At first the hiding away feels sad, but so does the attempt to gloss over natural reality with concerted Fabulousness. Maybe we don’t need to strive to be fabulous all the time. Maybe we can just be ourselves? That would be the dream.

Directed by Ursula Martinez, Contra presents Laura switching between light biblical reference, matter-of-factly related personal anecdotes, defiant rope climbs, a smattering of Irish dance, and lip-sync delivery. She syncs to songs and – powerfully – the spoken words of a male American (?) comedian making light of women as one of two things: a cross to bear, or a body to fuck. It’s easy to forget in a growing culture of pop-drag, but lip-sync has a long lineage as a tool of performed resistance, particularly in gender politics. As Laura mouths the words of others – complete with recreated character gesture and expression – their gross normalisation is hammered home.

She’s unafraid to take the space she needs to do what she needs to do. Eating an apple in front of a microphone. Some people find chewing noises disgusting – OK. Wrapping herself in clingfilm to create a shining leotard. Because that’s what women are supposed to wear for aerial performance – OK. Calling people a cunt. Because the word for female genitalia is the worst fucking word in the world – OK. It’s not surprising that a tight burst of rage roars out. But don’t worry. It quickly subsides under more ‘appropriate’ light and chatty delivery.

But, if anyone’s ever climbed a rope, they will recognise the pain of it twisting and stretching into Laura’s bare skin as she climbs to its summit, then returns to the ground. Rises up. Descends.

For all it’s cleverness, Contra gets to an emotional core in me. As Florence and the Machine sing ‘Is it just part of the process? Well Jesus Christ it hurts‘, the show says ‘you are not alone in this struggle‘.

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