revew: Bryony Kimmings & Brian Lobel – A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer/
by Bryony Kimmings & Brian Lobel/
prod. Complicte Associates & National Theatre/
The first half of Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel’s A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is a very mediocre musical with some interesting bits of inflating set and some pretty costumes shaped like tumours.
The second half was manipulative and contrived and made me so angry I shook.
I imagine at some point in the making of this show, Kimmings must have decided she couldn’t actually write a musical, so would spend the second half manipulating people instead. And it is a masterful piece of manipulation, parading the delicate human subject in front of the audience, daring them not to be moved and grateful.
I want to spend as little time on the forgettable first half as possible but the gist is that there is a woman (Emma, played by Amanda Hadingue) that has no character traits of her own, save that her infant son is undergoing some tests in a hospital. While she runs around the hospital she bumps into a cast of other kooky characters, each with their own relationship to cancer and story to tell. They do this pretty much one-by-one. And there are songs which aren’t bad but I have already forgotten. And the aforementioned tumour costumes which were by far the best thing (they’re on the posters – look at the posters, it’s cheaper than a ticket).
The second half sees the form disintegrate, and the characters parade before us and reveal that – actually – they’re all based on real people. Then we have a brief section of verbatim performance, using audio from recorded interviews with cancer patients, survivors and their families. This is possibly the best part of the show, due to one of the interviewee’s mothers flagging up how exploitative the premise of the project is and asking of Kimmings ‘does she have a brain?’ This is obviously put in for laughs because who could possibly think this musical might be a bad idea. This is the point where the show decides to chuck critical engagement with its subject out the window, down a pit, never to be seen again.
The problem I have with verbatim is that it often fails to address the power imbalances between theatremaker/documenter and the subject/interviewees, whose voices are manipulated. Pacifist’s Guide doesn’t so much ignore this dynamic as flaunt it. Rather than confronting the natural bias that has been created by using other’s voices, we instead have the voice of Kimmings, finishing off their stories for them, as the actors symbolically remove their costume and make up, erasing the real people from the show before our eyes. They do not return.
Because this isn’t really a show about those already forgotten people who contributed to the verbatim half minute, the last fifteen minutes or so is a conversation between ‘Amanda’, played by Amanda Hadingue (who is definitely still acting and definitely not ‘just being Amanda’), and Kimmings herself, whose pre-recorded voice comes from above. Hadingue’s eyes turn heavenward every time she must consult Kimmings, and throughout this whole farce, the pretence is kept that this is not contrived in the least.
Then the company enter the stage, also as ‘themselves’, in the most contrived act of faux-‘solidarity’ I think it is possible to put on stage. The unseen voice from above commands them in all of this, telling them it is an act of ‘solidarity’. It doesn’t count, surely, if they have to be told to do it by the writer/director. One of the more brazen outright lies. Carried off with an oppressive smugness by the passive aggressive ‘wishes’ of the Voice Of Kimmings, who is seeming more like a Mysteron than anything else at this point.
There was not AN OUNCE of care in the room, when Hadingue invited the audience to shout out the names of loved ones who had been sick. People were weeping and were left to weep in the dark of the stalls as Bryony Kimmings’s literal voice from above goes on to command a woman with cancer, who has been called up, who isn’t a performer, who is obviously incredibly nervous, and unlike Kimmings is actually here, to sing us a song from the show.
This is empowering, to the invisible voice from above, who is brandishing the ill and suffering from their hiding place, who is entirely in control the entire time and does not give up or risk any of that power at any point. This is exploitation. In the end, the plot of Pacifist’s Guide ends up being a tale of a megalomaniacal Truman Show-style controller, presiding over a project which flounders a little as a musical, who then decides to make everyone feel awful as a form of self-defence.
This is a heavily contrived, wholly dishonest and disingenuous and overall manipulative piece of work. Its lack of care for the audience and disdain for the true stories it tells are alarming.
My sympathies to everyone involved, and who saw it, and will.