Thursday, 10 April 2014

John Berkavitch, Shame

Spoken-word performance events - poetry slams, hip-hop recitations - are big at the moment, at any rate in the uncloistered urban scene. There's a great scene in Bad Education where the wannabe trendy head takes some pupils to a basement rap contest and excitedly joins in to general agony. Well, that's me in a few months, I'm sure. I'm a neophyte in such matters, but the name of Kate Tempest is known to me, and the text of Brand New Ancients and the YouTube trailer for me have left me hungry for more. John Berkavitch until two days ago was another name off my radar. I went to his Shame performance at Winchester on the strength of a twitter 'Don't miss'  recommendation, written by someone who then didn't turn up himself. Perhaps that is the way of things these days.

Shame began - after a brief warm-up act - with an invitation to audience members to speak in public about their most shameful experiences. After the awkward silence thus created, Berkavitch launched into his piece, a series of interlocking autobiographical episodes of cowardice, selfishness, and humiliation. Three breakdancers accompanied him in various physical theatre configurations and provided short interludes of dance moves. A backing track provided musical atmosphere without being intrusive, and there was a programme of lighting and projections provided by a simple set of projectors around the performance area. With no technician in sight, the performance must have been synchronised exactly with this scheme (which makes one wonder what would have happened if an audience member had indeed volunteered a lengthy confessional speech, or the repartee had gone on longer than expected).

I found my attention engaged throughout: variations in the types of story and age perspectives involved provided variety under the overall thematic heading. There was a great deal more humour than the publicity material would lead one to expect, which made me reflect on how much comedy is indeed based on addressing our fears of disgrace. Visually I thought the physical side worked very well, conjuring up scenarios without overdoing things: I liked the coffee machine (though couldn't see the point of these caf√© interludes) and the bike, in particular. The miming of things like tight suits and a young boy's anger was subtle and delightful. There must have been a great deal of technical preparation involved, yet the piece felt fresh and spontaneous. There seemed to be a mismatch between the realistic, often mundane, text and the heightened language of the visuals; I'd expected something more trance-like or hypnotically rhythmic in line with my unformed ideas about what hip-hop poetry might be. A small audience made me embarrassed about Winchester's provincial indifference to experimental work, but then again there was a kind of club feeling between us which helped with the intimate feel of the work. And while I enjoyed - if that is the word - the stories, I didn't feel the show did anything with the idea of shame or really explored how it informs and shapes us, besides recycling examples of it. No one took up the renewed invitation at the end to share embarrassing scenes from their life with the others, but I left feeling that spoken word events, with exciting stage movement and  lighting and projection designs like this, are something we should be looking into imitating at school level. Theatre has a valuable role as a forum in which we can confront and work through matters that are important and difficult on a personal level. Reverence for the canon, after all, soon becomes an easy excuse for not thinking or creating anything new, a way of hiding from oneself under the excuse of culture.

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