A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

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The first thing I properly read about A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer was James Varney’s review from the run at HOME.

I first saw Bryony Kimmings in Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel. I LOVED it. My experience of theatre(/performance art) was still in its infancy, really – and it’s one of the shows I remember so vividly, remember feeling so fucking fired up by, that it feels like one of the ones that shaped what I think this whole thing is for and why it can be so important.

It was also one of the first shows I remember knowing throughout was consciously, aggressively feminist. Back then, I don’t know what that meant for me. It probably wasn’t until I started working I really realised how important feminism was. Back then, I don’t think I’d really learned how to check myself at least a bit.

I moved to London, and That Catherine Bennett Show started. Here’s where I think I fell a bit out of love with Kimmings. See, I felt like this show – which I didn’t even see – didn’t fit the project. I felt like having the name ‘Bryony Kimmings’ stamped on all the copy meant that it somehow wasn’t trying hard enough to really make CB a big star, it was to further Bryony’s work as an artist. It meant I started to think Kimmings was self-centred – even arrogant.

Which is bullshit, and if you read Maddy Costa’s review, CB didn’t need to be a big star, because Kimmings was making someone else the star.

Bryony Kimmings later started a debate on artists and getting paid. While I’d still stand by some criticism of this (£75 still seems loads on a night out, mostly), what I was actually doing was ignoring her point and deeming her as egotistical. She says she’s good like 20 times in her initial blog.

I’ve been thinking about Candice. She won Great British Bake Off last week. More power to her. Initially, though, she was my least favourite contestant. I thought she was being too ambitious, too show offy, a bit smug. Maybe she was – but so were Andrew and Tom, and yet I didn’t really fucking dislike them from the get go (also, baking an enriched dough in 2.5 hours is bullshit no matter who you are).

When I stopped slagging Candice for doing the wrong thing with her face or obviously being in it for a book deal just like everyone else, I realised I probably hated her because she is an attractive, intelligent and skilled woman, and fuck I hate that. I mean – I don’t. I want to see women succeed. But I’ve been conditioned to hate other women. There’s that Ani DiFranco line – ‘everyone harbors a secred hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.’

Well, Bryony Kimmings might be the prettiest girl in the room for me. She became part of my artsy-type frame of reference at the wrong time. So I hated her. She fell into the deep dark corner of my brain reserved for disliking other women for no reason other than they conducted themselves in a fashion my indoctrinated ideals disapproved of.

I’ve gotten better at feminism since last seeing her work. Better at being supportive. Seen a lot more RashDash, read some non-fiction, gotten more comfortable with my own mediocrity and learned to check myself to make sure I wasn’t being a secret misogynist. But Kimmings was trapped already – I’d decided I disliked her long ago, and the fire of my dislike for her was fuelled by James Varney’s review. I went in expecting to hate the show.

So, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is sort of terrible. You know, the music just isn’t great and the lyrics are a bit clumsy – a bit Bryan-Adams-esque with predictable rhyming patterns, or with lyrics so completely out of keeping with the music that they feel written for performance poetry rather than big-belt-out numbers. There are ocassionally funny moments, but it almost feel likes the whole show is uncomfortable making jokes given the subject at hand, so never quite commits. The first half is dull – each character has a bit of a turn to sing their story, and so structurally it feels really flat.

It is also – and this is the big storm of Varney’s review – a bit ethically questionable. You can read his for the real vitriol, but it did stick in my mind for much of the second half. It’s the difficulty that Kimmings’ voice from above *finishes* their stories, that the creators of this show have the full and final say on how the real stories are twisted and reframed, that while you watch you can sense every single tiny movement has been precisely choreographed to yank on your heartstrings. It’s also the difficulty that you’ve paid for a ticket, and so the NT is profiting from cancer patients’ suffering – though this is perhaps unfair, as maybe I don’t have enough insight into the creative process or budget to claim this.

Kimmings makes auto-biographical work – that’s her whole thing. I don’t want to be pissy about a woman making a work about herself when I’ve basicalled jizzed all over Peter McMaster’s entirely auto-biographical 27 or a group of male veterans getting their rocks off in Minefield. To dismiss Pacifist’s Guide as a bit self-centred for inserting Kimmings into the story feels to me like saying women’s stories don’t need to be told – the story of the mother isn’t necessary. Here, I think it works, though not perfectly. In the specific is the universal and all of that.

It’s flawed as fuck. But the reality is that during the last ten minutes I was biting back tears. That last bit – where you can shout out the names of people who have been lost – fuck. It’s so choreographed, so perfectly, perfectly manipulative and unapologetic in being a bit obviously sappy – but it worked for me. I wanted to weep.

I’ve been thinking about Emma Rice. A woman who took The Globe, gave it a gentle shake up, smashed box office records and then got dismissed in a terrible PR line about shared light. She got so much criticism for not doing things ‘right’ – and let’s be honest here, I didn’t rave on her Midsummer, though still feel quite keen to defend her practice. She was being the hero the Globe needed but not the one the establishment deserves right now. She is gone because she took a miniscule risk with light, and I think that says a lot about how much we trust women to uphold or create a legacy.

In A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, there are fissures of charge, of a tingling electricity, low murmurs of solidarity, a genuinely diverse cast and the most perfect cancer costumes that could possibly be conceived, all packaged in a show that is underwhelming. But in a post-Rice-at-The-Globe world, I want to stand and celebrate feminist performance artist Bryony Kimmings being given the room and support to fuck up at the National Theatre in association with Complicite. There are poor judgements, a format that doesn’t quite fit the subject – but it’s a tough sell of a subject taken on by an artist graduating into a new scale of work and it all happened at the National. It set next to David Hare and Peter Schaffer. Down the river at the Globe, they took a wee risk and backed out. At the National, they let Kimmings take the Dorfman and the result is questionable, but still worthwhile. I hope they give Kimmings The Globe and she burns it down.

National Theatre

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