Review: Soap&skin

Posted on 28 October 2009
By Amy Roberts
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There’s a theory by the writer/theorist/madman Antonin Artaud endearingly entitled Theatre Of Cruelty which implies that ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theatre is not possible…’

By this he implied that by producing a violent and austere performance you were producing a physical determination through which the audience could escape – the cruelty however lies within the performer’s ability to then strip away their masks to reveal a truth the audience did not care to see. By this he was clearly implying Soap&skin’s performance at The Northern College Of Manchester tonight.

By turns humble, heavily self-conscious, delicate and innocent, Soap&skin (aka 19-year-old Anja Plaschg) is also unpredictably volatile – baring a disturbing amount of maturity in her ability to transform a gig space into a tense and at times deeply unsettling theatre of post-pubescent agonies, yearnings and experiences.

Low tuneless electronic grumbles play mischievously in the eager 20 minutes prior to her entrance – a man starts screaming on the track. People laugh nervously. It doesn’t stop. An eternity seems to pass before the wailings fade out and Anja skulks on and sits at her piano in total silence, a wry smile at her mouth.

We’re in a David Lynch film too fucked up for words.

One man applauds. No-one joins him. He stops and the silence thickens, begging for its eventual demolition within Soap&skin’s terse fingers on the keys.

When the music begins it’s played majestically and ardently – Anja seems to be a woman abound with a manic inner rhythm of misplaced fury and misspent youth which pounds demonically out of her in the most melancholic and melodramatic of manners.

She’s accompanied only by a small laptop set up on her piano, from which all manners of the beautiful and the sinister blare out from (samples of flutes, camera shutters, assorted machinery, screaming babies and strings to name a few) during the 13 or so songs of her performance tonight.

Some of it is outstandingly moving for its simplicity, naivety and uninhibited beauty (namely, ‘Cry Wolf’ and ‘Mr Gaunt PT 1000’) but these songs only seem like a padding out context (and are performed as so, grouped tidily so together at the beginning of the set) provided to add an even larger ardor and impact to the songs which see her explore a raucous and frankly terrifying tone.

This is Soap&skin’s sublimity though – to transfer from the shy, overtly modest persona of the start of the set to the distraught, caterwauling, confrontational performer of the end of it.

In part this is developed through what is a perfectly crafted stage show – replete with atmospheric lighting and an understanding of how to create unease amongst what is the most intimate gig setting I’ve ever encountered (a 150 seater lecture theater is an indelible place to frighten people). When the lights go out during the morose slow burning ‘The Sun’, there is little to inform the audience as to what the flaming-fuck is going on.

There’s a brief shimmer of Anja’s smokey lame leggings hanging off her nimble frame and bolting around in the shadows somewhere. She can be heard breathing intensley behind a sharp, shallow drumbeat tapping itself out in the background like the fading rhythms of a swallow whose heart is about to burst. Flinging herself up the centre stairway which separates the seating aisles, she stomps at each step and caterwauls in her jagged Austrian accent ‘I’m not afraid of youuuuu!!’ and lingers hauntingly at the very top. Very few people turn around and keep her gaze. She’s such a domineering, threatening presence at this point that they probably believe they would melt if they were to hold her gaze for longer a few seconds.

Stomping back down to her piano – now demonic, possessed – a backing track of the end music from Requiem For A Dream splays out (you know, from that scene where Jared Leto gets his junk-mutated arm lopped off whilst his mama gets electro shock therapy and his girlfriend is forced to go ‘ass-to-ass’ for smack. The memory of said scene is horrific in itself), and Anja attacks every minor key at her disposal with her fingers, bashing hungrily away at them in a frankly psychotic manner that is heavier than most metal gigs. In fact, Anja’s performance style owes more to the raw, aggressive and often highly confrontational punk theatrics of someone like Iggy Pop than the delicate anti-folk eccentricities of Regina Spektor (to whom Soap&skin is often lazily compared).

The set ends on an equally macabre and theatrically perfect note with the lights blotting out once more and re-emerging on the lone mic-stand in front of the audience for the gothic-electro wonder that is ‘Marche Funebre’. The scarce light pits into Anja’s bone structure and sets into an appropriately skull-like visage whilst her hands settle by her side into a pair of devilish claws and she jerks her body around in a contorted dance reminiscent of Sadako from The Ring bolting broken bodied out of the TV screen. Her voice is translucent, effervescent but also with an edge of disturbance to it which has been present for the entirety of the gig and deserves a round of applause all on its own.

She hangs her head by her knees – her shoulders jutting about mid-pose as some kind of a mutated bow because when she lifts her head back up and grins at the audience she swiftly walks robotically away, never to be seen again.

The lights go up.
No-one moves.
No-one breathes.
The thickening silence returns again, but this time it awaits an applause which Soap&skin doesn’t return to hear.

Her absence is revealing of both a heavy vulnerability which is perhaps too shy to receive the audiences adulation and also a intelligence that to re-enter the auditorium and interact with the audience on any level would be to allow her mask to slip and reveal where Soap&skin starts, and where Anja Plaschg ends.
The Theatre Of Cruelty is in the abandonment of the audience and the further disturbed captivation of a woman as an incredibly fascinating enigma.


19.10.09 Manchester