Theatre Critic and Journalist

My Mess, Your Shit

My Mess, Your Shit

According to a 2007 study, one in a hundred women in the UK suffers from a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. That’s the highest rate of any country in Europe. What’s more, it’s dwarfed by the estimated proportion of women with a “serious issue with food” that evades such formal diagnoses. That’s one in two.

Doubtless, you’ve read statistics like this before. They’re the sort that can, if we’re being totally honest, land without much of a lasting impression. They get shelved somewhere in the back of our minds: just another of those facts of life. That’s where they exist for me, a 27 year-old male who has never come face to face with an eating disorder. Not properly. Not in a way that’s really affected my life. I’ve seen them across rooms and passed them in the street, but it’s not something I’ve had to confront, either as a reality or as an idea.

However two Fringe shows have forced it to the forefront from where it has refused to budge: Caroline Horton’s Mess at the Traverse and, two weeks later, Cristian Ceresoli and Silvia Gallerano’s La Merda (The Shit) at Summerhall.

Both productions tackle eating disorders head-on. Mess puts a name on it: anorexia nervosa. The Shit opts not to. There’s a lot in that distinction alone. The two are very different shows with very different aims. Both make great theatre. Only one is dangerous.

In Mess, Horton shows us a university student, Josephine, battling with the disease; how it is born out of her perfectionist tendencies and her desperate urge for control. There are colour-coded charts and calorific calculations. Food is just another opportunity to exercise extreme self-discipline, to do herself proud. Josephine eats four slices of apple over four hours. Trips to the Boots weighing machine are a treat. Laxatives and blackouts less so. “It’s not about food,” says Josephine. It’s about control.

Horton makes us understand the psychology of and recovery from anorexia brilliantly. Her candyfloss and fairy-lights aeshetic lets us see the world as Josephine does. It feels light-headed and giddy. Unreal. Manageable. Anorexia – at least, for Josephine – isn’t about vanity. It’s not a choice. It’s a compulsion; the only way to cope.

The problem, though, is that Mess frames the condition in purely psychological terms, as a by-product of Josephine’s personality. As such, she shoulders the blame alone. However, personalities don’t exist in isolation. Josephine’s need for control, her competitive edge; these are not root causes, but symptoms. They have their basis in a society that pressurises women – and men – towards perfection and tips them into neurosis.

There’s no avoiding that in The Shit. It is laid bare and read raw. Silvia Gallerano, sat naked on an oversized stool – a child on an adult chair, a life-model posing, a living statue on a plinth – delivers a furious, accusatory monologue in a quivering voice. Her lower lip is like jelly. Her ‘character’ – an actress – obsesses over her thighs, eats only apples for a week and, out of pure hunger, chews on her fingertips just as female octopi eat their own tentacles to survive.

This is not just about control, however, but about a self-esteem crushed like scrap metal. She refers to herself as “a small one.” Little wonder given a society that views her as nothing but a sex object and assumes she’ll comply. It must, she says, “be something in the way I talk.” She’s desperate to become tall, despite the fact that “the train doesn’t stop at your station every time.” When it pulls in, you have to be ready to catch it. You’ve got to be on at all times. Nothing shy of perfection will do.

By leaving the social context out, Mess risks making anorexia an abnormality, a disruption in certain individuals. The Shit, by contrast, has found a root cause and it is absolutely society’s problem. It looks to eradicate, rather than heal and is an almighty cry of ‘j’accuse’, rather than ‘je regrette’. My Mess, your Shit.

One Comment

  1. Thanks Matt, Good to see these two shows compared. The 'short' wanting to be 'tall' is easier to understand than 'fat' wanting to be 'thin' underlying mess. What is this bizarre impetus to disappear by so many fabulous young women, to so diminish oneself as a response to a feeling of powerlessness? THis is sadly still gender specific as 85-90% of sufferers are women. I am frsutrated by The Shit as it has clearly been made with the actress in mind and yet the authorship claimed by Cristian Ceresoli puts Silvia Gallerano in a diminished position. She becomes puppet to his master in a traditional power relationship that accentuates the gender imbalances that the show seeks to subvert. I'm writing to Caroline Horton about 'Mess' and will send on a copy as all the reviews of the show I found (except an interview in the Scotsman) are by men… yes, this IS about those power structures and theatre as a microcosm for wider society. If you stack up the producing partners and the direction, the gender imbalance is accentuated with the exception of Parabola Arts (+strong ties to BAC). As a 27yr old with no experience of the subject it would be great if you could acknowledged that your views were aided by knowledge and wisdom of some women.

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  1. Mess, Battersea Arts Centre | Catherine Love - [...] gender lines, with men loving it and women expressing reservations. Picking up on this discussion, Matt Trueman brilliantly compared Mess …

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