Bryony Kimmings: Performance Art Princess

Written for Exeunt

I am blowing bubbles. Disappointed at not being able to meet with Bryony Kimmings in person, I felt I needed to do some extra prep for our phone interview, to transport myself to a suitable space.  Hence the bubbles. It felt right, an appropriately flamboyant gesture.

Bryony Kimmings is to live art what Kylie is to pop music; she is sparkly, playful – and a consummate professional. Her work is often autobiographical and she has been accused of self indulgence (she has her fair share of detractors), but Kimmings is very serious about her work, and believes in the power of good old fashioned entertainment. “I get quite exhausted thinking about ways people will engage with [my work]. In order to win the crowd, as a performer I want the crowd to love me.” As a live artist, she can get that level of engagement, “in that space you can have an emotional connection.”  It’s the reason she’s not a stand-up comedian. Engagement is a vital part of what she does.

Bryony Kimmings takes over.

This week Kimmings has been given the run of The Junction in Cambridge, the theatre where she is an Associate Artist. Visitors can expect a jamboree of performances, installations and workshops infused with Kimmings’ particular sense of fun. She has taken on a curatorial role for this project and has spent a lot of time “thinking about the user experience; I don’t want it to be ‘Ah is that it?’ I want it to be MAGNIFICENT.” For someone who makes such breezy work, Kimmings seems to put a lot of pressure on herself and has been working incredibly hard to bring this week together.

Anyone who saw Kimmings’ 7 Day Drunk (in which she explored making art during different states of intoxication) knows the lengths she is prepared to go for her work. In some ways the creative process is quite a dark one for her. “It is quite emotional and quite lonely and heavy, I go through that and then make quite a light piece.” Seeing video footage of a tired and wasted Kimmings being encouraged to keep drinking by a watchful team of scientists and doctors was disquieting. Behind all the glitter, there is an iron resolve, a need to push herself.

From soothing installation The Hall of Gratuitous Praise to the English premiere of 7 Day Drunk this week will provide an eclectic programme reflecting Kimmings’ own bold style. In Mega you can become a 9 year old Bryony donning a shell-suit in a site specific audio adventure. Thinking of the younger Kimmings makes me think about her influences. “I went through phases of having art crushes on people. In the beginning I was a Gobsquad girl, Ducky, Kiki and Herb, then I moved on to Taylor Mac…[surrealist photographer] David Lachapelle and stand up comedian Neil Hamburger, his use of overly stretching the audiences’ patience is amazing. But also theatrical music, a couple of theatre based bands? It’s always quite colourful, always quite loud.”

Her style of performance sometimes gets accused of being OTT. That she made her name with a piece called Sex Idiot, in which she openly discussed her sexual history, including STDs, made some regard her as an exhibitionist. It is a tag she is aware of. “That one taught me how far to go, I think I went slightly too far [and] it damaged personal relationships with people…” but her work centres around her own experiences and so it may be one she has to deal with, however unfairly, for a while “I never wanted to tell any lies, I didn’t want to write plays that were made up stories about stuff. I wanted to say ‘this has happened to me, isn’t that interesting’, it’s a bit self important of me which is why I try to make myself look like the fool sometimes.”

Is it therapy? “Me and my boyfriend were talking about this the other day (he’s an electrician) and he said ‘I hate the way that artists use their work as therapy’ a couple of days later he said ‘I’ve changed my mind, at least artists acknowledge they’re quite bad as people and try to make themselves better’. Naturally if you’re trying to explore why you’ve done something, then I’m obviously going to have some kind of therapeutic effect but I’m conscious of the balance of making it primarily for the audience too.”

A “sick Lady Gaga ensemble.”

Just as I feel that I’ve taken the conversation in too sombre a direction she begins telling me about how some of her most serious decisions revolve around whether she should wear flats or heels. Whilst she sees the silliness in this statement she is proud of her fashion obsessions and has a clear belief in the importance of image. Each full length performance begins with a visual mood board and she works closely with her costume designer David to create “sick Lady Gaga” ensembles. As such she is most at home within the stable of queer artists such as Scottee (a guest of honour at her opening extravaganza last night and close friend). She excited tells me about the term ‘light art’ which Scottee has coined and Kimmings believes for her supersedes ‘live art’ “If they’re a ‘light’ artist and glitter and sparkle is important, they understand that they can use costume and lip-sync if it fits in with their more serious intention.”

I wonder if this approach will ever get old? She laughs and then is quiet for a while. “It’s something that I think about a lot. There’s one older live artist who I respect Marcia Farquhar, she’s still extremely glamorous but not trashy, she doesn’t look like  mutton dressed as lamb which I think is something which could happen to me.” Images of too tight leather mini-skirts and bright blue eye shadow hang ominously in the silence. “I do get quite fearful that it’s going to have to evolve, I just imagine that the aesthetic will change as my taste will change.” Still I tell her, as we wrap up our conversation, we wouldn’t want all the glamour to go.

Bryony Kimmings will be taking over The Junction, Cambridge, from 21st – 26th October. For more details visit The Junction website.

She She Pop and Their Fathers: Testament

Written for Exeunt

When I was 13 my dad spent an entire day driving me around Hampshire so that I could get the perfect green school skirt; not too daggy, not too short, not too dark, not too light – this was a quest of epic proportions that my dad bore with a seemingly unending patience. “It’s ok…” he said when I reached the end of my teenage tether “…you can pay me back when I’m older.”

There comes a tipping point in every parent-child relationship when the roles begin to shift. It’s these intergenerational dynamics that form the basis of German theatre collective She She Pop’s intensely personal exploration of King Lear. What happens if your parents have to move in with you? What will you allow them to bring? Can love be measured? Is there a link between love and property? These are Shakespearian concerns but, as Testament blindingly highlights, they are also very contemporary ones.

The twist here is that both generations are present on stage. These questions are debated between She She Pop’s fathers and their flamboyant offspring. Whilst their dads are consummate performers now, the making of this work has clearly cost them.  Using recorded delivery, we hear extracts from discussions where they want to walk out, moments when the barriers between these men and their daughters seem vast, insurmountable. They are going to enormous lengths for their children, fighting their sense of reserve in order to reveal themselves in public in this way.

While it’s touching, the piece  is never sentimental. The set design delights in the ridiculous with three comfy chairs acting as thrones; Elizabethan ruffs adorning the necks of our modern dress performers. There is a messy, thrown together feel to the production as a whole that belies a deep understanding of what will speak to a contemporary audience. Dolly Parton is mingled with Shakespearean poetry and She She Pop are clearly aware of how emotionally potent this mixture of high and low art can be. But they are not pushing buttons just for the sake of it and these complex relationships don’t always end in reconciliation.

The piece avoids naval gazing by providing a witty and incisive deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play. Ideas are unpacked with a cheeky composure, opening King Lear up with striking clarity. The concept of Lear’s 100 knights is placed under the microscope, with both sides presenting their argument for and against. Father and daughter do so honestly and at times harshly, sparing no blushes. I’ve never understood the complexity of this stipulation of Lear’s, simply putting it down to villainy on the part of Regan and Goneril. But now I see it from both sides; how the struggle is tied up in reasonable notions of practicality on the part of the child and – equally as understandable – pride from the fading patriarch. Neither side is right or wrong; these are just the battles which will affect us all one day.

This then is not a new way to look at Shakespeare’s epic tragedy but rather part of the search for a greater sense of understanding between ourselves and our parents. As I watch, thoughts of my own father pop into my mind and as I begin to well up, I realise that She She Pop have floored me completely.

For more information on She She Pop go here.

Review: Rian

Written for Exeunt

It’s always thrilling to see the contemporary and the traditional wedded together so successfully. With Rian, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Keegan-Dolan has shown himself to be a vibrant and original choreographer. The piece is a collaboration with folk rock musician Liam Ó Maonlaí, in which eight dancers and five musicians fuse movement and music together in a modern piece that is thick with historical overtones. Playful, mischievous and poetic, Rian is both reverential and revelatory and but perhaps the strongest element in this vital work is the inherent sense of joy which filters through to the audience.

Using Ó Maonlaí’s titular 2005 solo album as its musical backbone, this is Keegan-Dolan’s jubilant repost to a world in the throws of a bleak economic climate. As such whilst Rian – which means ‘mark’ or ‘trace’ in Irish – is full of echoes of the past, it also feels terribly relevant; the voices of history speaking to the people of the present. This is an audience longing to be reminded of something good and true, and the readiness with which they engage with the piece, whooping throughout and leaping up at the end in rapturous applause, reveals this particular need. The Irish are, ostensibly, always up for a bit of the ‘craic’ but this wilful sense of communal festivity seems necessary now more than ever.

With its sharp, clean set and quirky, pounding choreography, the piece is never sentimental, and avoids the easy emotional currency that can come with nostalgia. Keegan-Dolan’s movements respond fully to the different textures that flow through the music. The creaking and cracking of stomping leather brogues whips up the crowd into an atmosphere reminiscent of a ceilidh, as leaps are landed and thighs are slapped, the dancers sporting cocky grins. Spirits are evoked as a girl’s voice hauntingly fills the theatre and four women respond with the simplest of repeated movements, it is hypnotic watching their bare feet sweep the floor and their arms rise and fall with balletic, silent grace.

The resulting piece feels timeless. By creating a score firmly rooted in Irish folk but also infused with elements of world music Ó Maonlaí is acknowledging Ireland’s multicultural present. In doing so the richness of these other cultures bleeds into an already potent tradition to create something distinctly Irish but also universal. He is a compelling musician and from the moment he places his harp centre stage and lights a lone candle on his piano, it feels as though he is offering something up to his ancestors. But for all the holiness inherent in this commanding music, performed with a hypnotic stillness by his band of musicians, Ó Maonlaí  is not afraid to laugh at himself, throwing the kind of shapes that would make any dad at a disco proud.

Rian is a barn-stormer of a production, in which the dancers sometimes sing and the singers sometimes dance. It is touching to see artists take on something which is so out of their comfort zone, so comfortably. This is a company that clearly know and trust each other and in the midst of their mastery, by letting go of themselves in such a way, they invite us to do the same.

Rian will be at Sadler’s Wells, London, from 24th-25th October 2011. For tickets and information visit the Sadler’s Wells website.

Review: 16 Possible Glimpses

Written for Exeunt

In a world where the lives of artists are as interesting as the work they produce, 16 Possible Glimpses is a tantalising prospect. Marina Carr’s play takes a look at the life of Anton Chekhov, fracturing it down into 16 fictionalised sequences and leaving the Abbey Theatre’s Associate Director Wayne Jordan to sew them together.

Chekhov’s life certainly seems to provide rich pickings for such a bio-drama and is here presented not as a dour Russian playwright but as a playboy, carouser, caring brother and egocentric artist. We watch his life unfold through a mixture of slow motion sequences, live stage filming, and projections. There is a lot of snow and a silhouetted, hooded monk. The production never bores its audience but its stylishness feels hollow and slightly desperate. One starts to wonder if Jordan really trusts Carr’s material. A large amount of this stage business feels superfluous. It’s hard to work out why certain moments are filmed, for example, while others are not; the balletic removal and then immediate replacement of the chairs in a café scene also feels something of a mystery.

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Review: Jerusalem

Written for Whats on Stage

It is a rare thing not to want something to end, but so it was last night watching Jez Butterworth‘s Jerusalem; to say I was bedazzled just about sums it up.

Returning to the Apollo Theatre for a limited run after its massive transatlantic success, this is possibly the final chance to see Mark Rylance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and I think it’s time to sell granny to get a ticket.

Rylance is an actor at the peak of his prowess, a quivering, swaggering behemoth. In Byron, Butterworth has created for him a modern English folk legend; a protector of maidens, confessor of undesirables, Pied Piper of good hearted children and indifferent rats, this Gypsy King is as wild and dark as the woods that protect him.

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Review: Sixty-Six Books

Written for Whats On Stage

If this first 24-hour performance of Sixty-Six Books felt like a pilgrimage for those of us who witnessed every second, it must have seemed even more so for the team at the Bush Theatre. After three years of planning Josie Rourke and her crew have produced not only the rebirth of a religious text but the rebirth of a theatre.

In this inaugural performance in their new library space, 66 writers have created contemporary responses to the books of the King James Bible, this year celebrating its 400th anniversary. The scope of their ambition is astonishing with the Bush gathering together one of the richest artistic ensembles in decades.

Neil LaBute sits side by side with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there’s something magical about seeing Juliet Stevenson perform for ten minutes at 2:45am in the morning or watching Billy Bragg strumming the sunshine in around dawn.

Sixty-Six Books is a rich tapestry of literature that mirrors the Bible both in its brilliance and opaqueness. From Jeanette Winterson’s Godblog (starring Catherine Tate as God, a wryly Jewish dame from the Bronx who declares magnificently “In the beginning there was the Tweet.”) to Kate Mosse’s apocalyptic Endpapers, all human life is here with family at its heart.

Very foolishly I never realised the Bible focuses so strongly on parent child relationships;Sixty-Six Books opens the eyes to the human connection within this Christian text.

The event makes you look at the Bible afresh but sometimes it’s necessary to shrug off attempts to place the original over its modern reincarnation. The best responses are those that only echo their Aramaic counterpoints; stories like Fugitive Motel, that break off into different directions or scenes like The Loss of All Things that bring a new twist or make a contemporary comment.

Responses range from the short and sweet to verbose 30 minute solo pieces, from comedy sketches to intense provocations. Music plays a glorious, if sporadic part, particularly in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s When We Praise. When Salena Godden replaces ‘God’ with ‘story’ in The Chronicles a genuine moment of transcendence occurs.

Perhaps there is too much reliance on monologues and spoken word third person retellings, but the stories being told feel important and the performances without exception all potently committed.

For the next two weeks you can see several different groupings of these texts. But whether you attend an eight-book session for one night at the Bush, experience its 12-hour run at Westminster Abbey or tackle the last 24-hour marathon at the end, you will be engaging in something that is not simply a theatrical production but an epic event.

Sixty-Six Books is an incredible achievement and a one off experience that it would be sacrilegious to miss.

For listings information go here.