Review: Sanitise at the Traverse Theatre

SanitiseThe bathroom is our most private space. It’s where we take the dirtiest aspects of our lives and clean them away. It’s also the setting for Caitlin Skinner and Melanie Jordan’s Sanitise, a piece that explores female identity and sexuality. I went to see last night’s performance at Traverse Theatre, and was lucky enough to chat with Caitlin, the show’s director, beforehand.

Caitlin and Melanie began working together on Sanitise in 2012, but the show’s concept originally came about as a collection of ideas Melanie created as part of her degree study three years earlier, exploring the relationship between cleaning and sexuality. “At first the piece was just Mel and a toilet really,” Caitlin explains, “She was attracted to it because it’s the dirtiest most disgusting place and yet we make it this pristine, white, shiny object. That led us to using cleanliness and dirtiness in the world of the bathroom as a kind of metaphor for looking at cleanliness and dirtiness in terms of sexuality and particularly in relationship to women’s sexuality.” The show evolved from this idea, taking the private space of the bathroom to explore the construction of the public self.

The piece makes use of a range of visual media – dance and physical theatre, but also illustration and animation. Although the elements of physical theatre were there from the start, it wasn’t until later that the use of illustration became involved: “We created this story for ourselves that was really enriching the piece but we felt we weren’t able to communicate [the main character’s] inner thoughts or her outside life properly just with the physical and visual work we were doing.” Illustrations from Lubin Lone develop the narrative, giving us extra insight into the character’s thoughts as she navigates a relationship with herself, her bathroom, and her wish to be clean.

The show opens with us being shown proudly around a pristine bathroom. Melanie’s performance throughout is fantastic, and in this opening piece she establishes a firm relationship with the audience that lasts until the show’s end. This number is light-hearted, but we begin to see glimpses of what’s to come as the main character struggles to maintain the immaculate gleam of her bathroom fixtures.

Clowning is a key part of the performance that emerged as the piece was being developed – Sanitise is at several points a comedic look at personal identity and insecurity. For Caitlin, this combination of wit with sensitive themes is nothing new, and it is an essential element of all her work: “I think humour helps the audience to connect with the performance and with each other and to throw light on the ridiculousness of our attitudes to sex, women, identity, materialism etc.”

As the performance continues, we see more intimate details of the main character’s life and thought processes; we see her preoccupation with clean reflected in her scrutiny of herself in the mirror (where Lubin’s fabulous illustrations bring to life the distorted images we all get of ourselves after staring at our own faces for too long). We learn of her fascination with work colleague John, and her imaginings of the two of them together. We brave the horrors that lurk beneath the beautifully clean bathtub, which simultaneously provoke disgust and fascination.

And then, a parcel arrives. We delve deeper into the character’s imagination as she tentatively negotiates the newly-delivered corset, six-inch platform heels and whip. This is where the piece takes its more intimate themes and makes them wonderfully accessible through its use of wit (and Melanie’s amazing capacity for facial expression). We see the character’s confidence waver from her first cautious steps in the shoes, to rehearsing her best sexy-face in the mirror. Not convinced for long by the sexy garb, she’s equally uncomfortable doing her best impressions of both dominant and submissive roles. The piece cleverly contrasts this sexuality, which clearly does not feel natural to the main character, but is assumed in accordance with popular images of sexuality (indicated by her mimicry of dominatrix poses, and reference to her copy of 50 Shades), with a far more organic desire.

It’s not long after discarding the corset that the grime under the bath taunts us again, and this time, the main character tackles the muck head-on. Rather than eliminating the filth though, she embraces it – it’s here we see her true desire and identity, as she accepts that part of her shame has taught her to keep hidden. But it’s not long before this shame takes hold, and here again Lubin’s illustrations bring to life the character’s nightmares of public shaming for her behaviour. In contrast to the mild and light-hearted awkwardness of the previous scene, this is painful to witness, as we see the main character try to escape from her fears, and begin to return the bathroom (and herself) to the original, unspoilt, state.

In a Q&A session after the performance, Melanie reflects on how the main character came about – in part as a vehicle to explore the piece’s statement about female sexuality. Over time, as the character’s persona developed, so did the message that emerged, and the two grew together as the piece was being devised. Melanie’s performance creates a character we can instantly relate to, and the piece’s thoughtful balance of humour and darkness makes it an accessible performance that isn’t afraid to make us feel uneasy. Talking about her aims in creating the piece, Caitlin explains, “I hope people take away a sense that people and sex are messy, organic, squidgy, funky, ridiculous things and that trying to clean it all up all the time is not only dull but probably not very good for us.”

Tonight is the last show of Sanitise’s current tour – at the Traverse Theatre at 8pm.

Laura Tomlinson