Cancer. A word that frighten us to the core. A word that we try our best not to use, despite its unstinting pervasiveness in our lives. When we do use it, we talk of it in terms of battles to be won and struggles to be overcome. We euphemise, and we evade. Rarely do we discuss the realities of cancer, or express our deepest fears. In this touching performance, Cancer Out Loud’s Tissue tackles breast cancer head on, and encourages its audience to do the same.
Molly Teshuva excels as Sally Bacon, a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer forced to undergo a mastectomy. Adam Butler, Brian Gilbert and Caitlin McLean take on several different roles around her, which, despite the potential for confusion, remained highly believable and distinct. The set is simple: an intimate theatre-in-the-round, looking onto a bare stage aside from three black blocks used interchangeably and which frequently become incorporated into the play’s impressive display of physical theatre.
The plot rapidly jumps back and forth in time, interpolating Sally’s experience of breast cancer with flashbacks from her past. Interwoven are touching and often seemingly unconnected episodes: supposed breast-enhancing exercises practiced by Sally and a friend in childhood, her brother Simon’s first encounter with pornography, her mother’s reminder that to wash her breasts with her hand is “dirty”. However, it becomes clear that these formative moments notably inform her experience of cancer, which is riddled with shame and reserve.
The play’s fast pace and short episodic scenes, which move seamlessly from one to another, underpin the lack of control in Sally’s life beyond her cancer diagnosis. In several scenes Sally is still whilst movement takes place around her, and in her darkest moments, she is alone on stage, interacting with disembodied voices, conveying an isolation that stems not from physical loneliness, but from a distinct lack of understanding and unwillingness to talk openly exhibited in those around her.
As well as this general lack of understanding, the people in Sally’s life are complicit in the haze of misconception and taboo surrounding the disease that the play aims to dismantle. Her boyfriend suggests she is being overdramatic and blames the lump on her frigidity; others reassure her that only women over 40 get breast cancer, and that her symptoms are most likely psychosomatic. It also takes far too long for medical experts to take her seriously. Whilst many of these fallacies are a thing of the past (the play was written by Louise Page in 1978), the general awkwardness and reticence implicit in Sally’s experience still resonate today.
In Tissue, internal monologues are far more prominent than external dialogue, with characters often speaking in first person even during conversation, subverting their tendency to supress their thoughts and feelings. Indeed, the play vocalises what the characters themselves and indeed we the audience are too frightened to talk about, and asks the questions which we are too afraid to ask. “Why me?” asks Sally, in her opening lines, with a raw honesty which is incredibly poignant. In its unflinching approach to cancer and its refusal to euphemise or prevaricate as its characters consistently do, Tissue urges its audience to start talking about breasts and to start talking about cancer, a fitting message for a performance raising money for CoppaFeel.
Under Rachel Hobley’s skilful direction, Cancer Out Loud’s Tissue combines artistic finesse with a powerful and very important message, culminating in an informative, thought provoking and deeply moving performance.