“Can we finally be post-Thatcher?” asks nat tarrab, arms flung out in a gesture of frustration. The performer, one half of Mars.tarrab, doesn’t want to make a show about the Iron Lady; the duo already made that show earlier this year for Ovalhouse’s Counterculture 50 season. Then, just six weeks after the run, Margaret Thatcher died. But, contrary to tarrab’s hopes, Maggie’s legacy is far from departed.
This simultaneous presence and absence persistently haunts Mars.tarrab’s reworked version of The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, which – like the country itself – can never quite shake off the ghost of Thatcher. Bounding onto the stage in neon lycra and legwarmers, Rachel Mars and nat tarrab promise to transport us back to the 1980s, the decade of Madonna, monetarism and the mega musical. But these are not the “plastic fantastic” 80s, tarrab insists; this is a decade of monumental political struggles and shifts. As Mars.tarrab go on to demonstrate, however, the two are not necessarily distinct.
The driving tension at the centre of the piece stems from the two women and their very different experiences of the decade they are attempting to evoke. For Mars, who was a child of ten at the close of the 80s, it represents the era of Cats, lycra cycling shorts and Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love”. Tarrab, on the other hand, was eighteen by the end of the decade and actively protesting against the destruction wreaked by Thatcher’s policies. At the outset of the show, their experiences of the 80s are mapped out on their bodies with coloured tape, a playful but knowingly inadequate visual representation of the dramatically different but equally lasting impressions left on them by the decade. They are both, in contrasting ways, Thatcher’s children.
This tension, established early on, remains taut throughout the show. Mars.tarrab have the appealing, combative chemistry of a double act: Mars short, playful and frenetic, tarrab tall and full of righteous rage. Their competitive dynamic and apparently incompatible views of the 80s act as a motor, powering the piece forwards at a furious pace through the Faulklands, the free market economy and Section 28. The inspired framing device of the show, meanwhile, is also born through a kind of conflict, as Thatcher’s speeches are spliced up with lyrics from songs by female artists of the decade. Monetarism meets “Material Girl”, while homophobic rhetoric enters a head-on collision with Whitney Houston.
Out of this structure of conflict and juxtaposition emerges a show that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. The utterly bonkers joy of the two performers on space hoppers jars painfully with the sinking of the Belgrano; tarrab’s deeply felt objections to representing Thatcher are silenced with a showering of milk. There is, both in the positions represented by each of the artists and the string of contrasts throughout, a duality that reflects the problematic legacy of Thatcher and the decade she dominated. One is given the impression, despite the resistance to this idea, that there is no going back to before – before Thatcher, before the free market, before everything that is now so embedded in our society – and that Mars and tarrab’s opposed experiences will never quite be reconciled. Even at the show’s beautifully judged climax, which recognises and seemingly relents to the seductive power of nostalgia and sentimentality that 80s pop culture understood so well, tarrab stubbornly reminds us that this is no straightforward resolution.
The troubling ambivalence of the decade as seen through the eyes of Mars.tarrab is perhaps best summed up in one moment: Mars as a riotously zealous Thatcher announcing Section 28, while tarrab perches precariously on a teetering pile of chairs, speaking the words of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as an anguished appeal to the audience. Like the show itself, it’s a simultaneous punch to the gut and the funny bone, with a queasy aftertaste of discomfort.