Traditionally soap is made by rendering down lard. But in this tight show, Soap, playing at the Brisbane Festival, there isn’t an ounce of fat to be seen.
The pace is fast and the bodies are lean. It’s a pretty frenetic work-out for our aural senses as well. One moment we’re listening to Sia and Goldfrapp, the next we’re plunged into a race through classical hits from Handel to Rimsky-Korsakov via Beethoven and Strauss.
Yet for all its invocation of the contemporary music scene, at its heart, this is a curiously old-fashioned show. Essentially, it is a circus set in a bathroom.
Contortionists, tumblers, jugglers, clowns and trapeze artists each take it in turn to show off their skills as they bounce off, around, in and out of five claw-footed bathtubs scattered on the stage. Presiding over this troupe is an operatic diva perched on high in a modernist bathtub from which she emerges like a goddess – Botticelli’s Venus as re-imagined by Caroma.
It is also a remarkably coy work. Certainly, plenty of flesh is on display, but it is always kept family-friendly. The men might pretend to strip, but you’re never in danger of seeing the full Monty.
This show knows the tensile strength of fabric. Towels and sheets are juggled and whirled through the air in a manner that seems to defy physics. There is no way that those white Y-fronts are coming off, no matter what extraordinary position their gymnastic wearers assume.
In one scene, two male gymnasts wrap themselves sinuously around each other, but any romanticism is undercut by the aggression of the scene. A brief peck on the cheek between two of the female performers is less an expression of Sapphic desire than a bit of exciting girl-on-girl action for the bloke who shares their tub.
It is the mechanics of the body rather than its emotional register that this show celebrates. And it is here that the bathroom setting comes into its own.
Bathrooms, especially in the Anglo-tradition, are intimate spaces where we are alone with our bodies; a place where we can subject our bodies to the most intense scrutiny. It can be an alienating experience, especially when we catch our reflection in an odd angle in the bathroom mirror.
Do our bodies really look like that? This show manages to capture much of this magic of the bathroom experience.
Never has the human body felt so unfamiliar to me as I watched these extraordinary specimens display muscles that I never knew existed or assume poses or attempt feats of strength that I would have declared impossible. I was even forced to reassess the theatrical power of my toes after an astonishing scene in which we watch two pairs of feet meet and fall in love. I’ve never felt such emotional attachment to a set of phalanges.
Certainly, the cast are more assured with their bodies than they are with words. The bathroom-themed lyrics written to accompany pieces of classical music fall flat. Renaming the Blue Danube the Blue Dantub just feels silly.
What makes this failure odder is the rich potential in English for bathroom puns and allusions. Between “working up a lather”, “getting into hot water”, “going down the drain” or “throwing in the towel”, there is plenty of material for verbal spa-ing. Of course, as always, the trick with bathroom puns is not to faucet.
The best bits of the show happen when bodies meet water. The performers aren’t afraid to get wet, and they take similar liberties with theatregoers. In one wonderful opening sequence, they turn their water cannons onto the audience, which as Brisbane prepares for the arrival of the G20 seems, at least – dare I say it – precipitous.
Dance always aspires to the state of the fluid. From Busby Berkeley’s aquacade numbers for Esther Williams through to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain sequence and even the “He’s a dream” scene in Flashdance, choreographers have known the power of the presence of water for overcoming the problems of too-too-solid flesh. The spray of droplets accentuates the lines of arms and legs. Buoyancy gives the illusion of lightness.
In the splash of water, we are reminded that dance is primal and elemental. The ancient philosopher Thales thought that the world was derived from water, rested on water, and was beautified by water. It is a crazy idea.
Yet, the power of Soap is that, for a brief moment in time, it seems a perfectly possible and sane position to hold.
Soap plays at the Brisbane Festival until September 21.