Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation) at the Barbican

Posted: June 16th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation) at the Barbican

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Barbican Centre, June 12

Smack That

The cast in Rhiannon Faith’s Smack That (photo: Foteini Christofilopoulu)

The Pit at the Barbican is decked in balloons and pink folding chairs around its perimeter and as we enter a sextet of similarly dressed and wigged hostesses welcomes us with a drink (cider or water) and a snack (popcorn) before we take our seats. All the hostesses are called Bev and once seated we are each given a name tag that carries the same (m)atronymic with a descriptive forename; I am Specs Bev and Caterina is Pearl Bev. In the centre of the floor is a circular arrangement of identical boxes tied with pink bows from which the hostesses hand out one each with instructions not to open it before we are told. It’s like the setting of a giggly sixth form annual dance.

Choreographer and social activist Rhiannon Faith has a knack of wrapping up serious social concerns in settings that belie the nature of their subject. She and Maddy Morgan did it with Scary Shit, which dealt with their phobias and insecurities, and she follows up with a show about domestic abuse that starts with a party. But although the party is the way into Smack That, it is also a form of festive affirmation for the performers who have all been through abusive relationships and have come out of them stronger and wiser. In this sense Smack That is both a celebration of resilience over adversity and a call to action, for what Faith also does is to tap into solutions. In Scary Shit she introduced audiences to cognitive behavioural therapy and in Smack That she works with a domestic abuse charity, Safer Places, and introduces the J9 Domestic Abuse Initiative named in memory of Janine Mundy who was killed by her estranged husband in June 2003 while he was on police bail. Faith is responsible for making Harlow Playhouse the first J9 Venue in the UK, and the Barbican is now signed up and accredited, which means it has a safe place where victims of abuse can use a phone line to access information and a full support system. Look out for the pink J9 heart.

Presented by the Barbican as part of its 2018 season, Art of Change, Smack That takes the experiences of seven women (Rebekah Dunn, Valerie Ebuwa, Yukiko Masui, Maddy Morgan, Kim Quillen, Hollie Stevenson-Phipps and Casey Tohill) as a starting point for a conversation with the audience about domestic abuse. Six of those women — Quillen is on maternity leave — happen to be our hostesses, so this is not verbatim but autobiographical theatre (as Scary Shit had been), a fact that makes the setting disarmingly ambivalent. Just as the pervasiveness of domestic abuse (according to statistics, one in four women will experience it in their lifetime) far exceeds the social recognition, it is difficult to fully comprehend the reality behind Smack That in the performances of these six women. It is only half way through a light-hearted confessional party game when Stevenson-Phipps completes the statement, ‘Never have I ever…’ with ‘been grabbed by the throat’ that the atmosphere suddenly freezes; this is the moment in Smack That when we become aware of how domestic abuse can so easily go undetected until the victim has a chance to speak up. The somber atmosphere is soon relieved by the permission to open of our presents: party crackers and streamers (for immediate usage) along with information from the National Centre for Domestic Violence.

The theatrical form of Smack That cannot be dissociated from its social content; it is a reflection of the need to spread awareness of a pervasive but private violence and to offer help. As part of this engagement, Faith’s audition process was firstly to select women who had first-hand experience of domestic abuse who were willing to work together on stage; only three of the Bevs have formal dance training but the six women work so intimately together that it is solidarity that triumphs over individual qualities. Faith unites the Bevs through an egalitarian vocabulary of movement that extends beyond formal dance training, but at the same time she uses the expressive potential of Ebuwa, Masui and Morgan to add layers of gestural imagery to verbatim text as well as to portray physical and psychological states that are beyond words. It is here that Faith’s work as choreographer rather than director finds its emotional eloquence.

In its concern with social issues, Smack That follows naturally from Scary Shit, but in its loosening of choreographic imagery for theatrical articulation Faith has subtly changed the relationship of the audience to her work and of her work to society. The effects are already apparent.

Rhiannon Faith, Scary Shit

Posted: February 23rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Rhiannon Faith, Scary Shit

Rhiannon Faith, Scary Shit, Venue 2, Rich Mix, February 20

Rhiannon Faith and Maddy Morgan in Scary Shit (photo: Tina Remiz)

Rhiannon Faith and Maddy Morgan in Scary Shit (photo: Tina Remiz)

Admittedly you might not invite your young children to a show called Scary Shit, but at first glance the brightly-coloured poster of Maddy Morgan and Rhiannon Faith cavorting on soft fuzzy cubes in an AstroTurf green field might indicate a fun romp for young audiences until you notice the tampon falling from the sky on a parachute and a recommended age limit of 16+ right under the venue and date. On the other hand, as a 16+ theatregoer you might not even consider attending Scary Shit just because the image appears to be aimed at young audiences. It’s a marketing conundrum, for while the image reveals the means by which Morgan and Faith arrive at their goal, it doesn’t prepare you for the goal itself. But that is the nature of Scary Shit: the comic naivety of Alice Barbero’s colours, costumes and props is a deliberate antidote to the maturity of the content about the shared phobias and insecurities of the two women. By the end you are wondering how they drew you so unsparingly into their innermost thoughts while play-acting with a pink telephone, a pink plastic poncho, a water pistol, and red inflatable boxing gloves. You go in the ‘Silly’ door and come out profoundly moved.

The context of Scary Shit is Faith and Morgan’s introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) through the psychologist Joy Griffiths ‘in order to learn more about themselves and maybe, just maybe, find a future free of fear.’ The focus at first is on Faith; she sits on a (pink) throne, her coronet emblem hanging on the (pink) Scary Shit heart above her head. She is holding an oxygen mask to her mouth as Morgan duly pumps air into it from a (pink) foot pump. Morgan has the mien of the put-upon, hard-pressed, underpaid, under-appreciated drudge of a royal hypochondriac, but Faith is too preoccupied by her phobias to entertain delusions of grandeur. She and Morgan recite some of the A-list phobias from Arachibutyrophobia (fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth) to Necrophobia (fear of dead people) but Faith’s real phobia is talking on the telephone with unknown people as a result of a traumatic telephone dumping. She relives the guided revisualization Griffiths (who happens to be Faith’s mother-in-law) suggested as therapy, starting with an introduction to CBT in a fight-or-flight sequence with Morgan that resembles an in-flight demonstration. Movements were suggested (so I learned later) by viewing body language filmed during the therapy sessions.

Morgan at this point begins to differentiate her phobia from Faith’s by marking out her own small square of red tape and standing in it; she has not intimated what her phobia is but she demonstrates innocently enough some of her father’s sailor’s knots. While continuing to act as Faith’s sidekick — helping her to illustrate a dry hump during Faith’s story of losing her virginity — we sense a frustration building up inside her as she tells her own story and dances her darkness behind a suspended balloon covered with tangled knots that bears an uncanny resemblance to a brain or a womb. As Faith’s self-confidence and her smutty-mouth returns, she takes on the topic of fertility but her attention (and ours) is drawn to Morgan’s predicament. Faith plays Puccini’s aria, O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi to calm her down but Morgan steps into her ring wearing the inflatable boxing gloves. At a loss, Faith tries everything from cock jokes to a funny dance get her to talk and after a while she does, reciting a bruisingly personal poem with the refrain, Baby Box Blood Bath, about her periods in which no blood is running. Griffiths’ calming voice returns, Morgan pops the knotted balloon, she and Faith wrap up the bloody remains in the pink poncho like garbage to be thrown out and do breathing exercises on the creaky throne. The audience is absolutely silent.

Like the therapy that underlies it, the superficial appearance of Scary Shit may be an unpalatable or unattractive prospect, but after seeing the performance you may well feel restored, patched up and grateful for the experiences of these two generous, unwitting clowns. Or you may prefer to keep everything knotted up inside like Morgan until it pops. Like all good theatre, Scary Shit offers a cathartic lift for the head and heart.

Scary Shit will be at The Pleasance on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 February at 7:30