Mathilde Monnier and La Ribot,
Queen Elizabeth Hal

These past five days in May have seen some fairly oddball goings-on labelled as
"New Dance at the Southbank Centre". Accidentally coinciding with other oddball
goings-on on the national scene, since it was booked up long ago before
elections were called. But no double-act in politics is likely to be quite aspeculiar
and weirdly stimulating as that between the Spanish cabaret artiste La Ribot
(often to be found nude) and the postmodern French choreographer Mathilde
Monnier, playing two sides of a woman who can’t help being at war with herself,
like slapstick twins or conjoined politicians.

Gustavia was more burlesque performance than dance, very European, black-
humoured, using scant material with expert pizazz and stage personality, and I
imagine, more painfully amusing for women than for men - or maybe it just felt
funnier because of what was happening on TV. La Ribot and Monnier, one auburn,
the other platinum blonde, seemed both symbiotic and yet programmed for
mutual destruction. Tripping around in high heels, bare legs and tiny black
leotards among treacherous torrents of black cloth totally covering the stage, lit
with abattoir neon, they drew on classic silent movie slapstick, Laurel and Hardy,
the Marx Brothers, but also keenly targeting the grey area where indulged
vapours cross into masochistic mental disorders.

Gustavia's two halves can't live without each other, can't live with each other, but
she's also determined to manipulate the audience with the tactics common to
small girls, diving footballers and spurned premiers - whimpers, wails, sobs and
one eye beadily open for sympathy. The two clustered at a microphone, trying to
out-weep each other to win our laughter, and sabotaging each other on their one
chair. The crybabies gave way to a more unsettling slapstick as they stumbled
about on the sabotaging rucks of the flooring, as if blind in the half-light, while
La Ribot kept accidentally thwhacking Monnier on the head with her black plank,
wheeling about out of control. Monnier would crash down in a broken little pile of
white limbs, then get up again - thwhack, down, up, thwhack. It hurt to watch.

Lit as if in an underground garage, the thing was made still more disorienting by
the deafening noise of a rainstorm, or a helicopter, or else a deathly silence with
only the alarming sound of a drip of water somewhere on the stage. The most
disturbing thing was not just that Monnier never seemed to learn, and La Ribot
never seemed to be aware of what she was doing, but that gales of laughter kept
shaking the audience, over and over, and that the women prolonged this one-
sided violence until everyone was uncomfortable.

Then we lightened up again with La Ribot’s deadpan existential monologue to the
audience, “Let the artists die - let them all die - I shall die”, spoken increasingly
crossly as she noticed dishevelled little Monnier tangled up in the curtains with
her foot stuck in a bucket, distracting our attention. Then down into bitter
absurdity again with an obsessive compulsive disorder routine involving pulling
trousers legs up and down, filled simultaneously with pratfalls, spreadeagles and
sprawls, terribly undignified and apt for post-election antics. 
For their rousing conclusion they climbed up on stools side by side and tried to
outshout each other like kids in increasingly insane sentences describing “a
woman”, in the style from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue where people alternate words
with subversive intent. “A woman is literally a hen”, was one nice result. “A woman
is doing sexual tourism in Afghanistan” was another. Finally, “A woman is in the
dark”, said Monnier, which pretty much described everyone. But it was damned
entertaining, in current circumstances.