This Is Not Culturally Significant is both uncomfortable to watch and mesmeric, as brave and remarkable a performance as you will see in London this year, or any year, and should be on anyone’s must-see list. And despite the title, it is in fact very culturally significant too, though without any of the self-regarding pomposity that usually attends shows that make such a claim!
As you descend the staircase from Waterloo Station, you enter a tunnel of garish graffiti and the whiff of fresh aerosol spray hits you. This is the world of the Vaults Festival where surprises of many kinds await, even on a damp and chilly February evening when a walk anywhere let alone on the wilder side does not seem immediately appealing. However, those fortunate enough to catch Adam Scott-Rowley’s truly remarkable one-man performance came away stunned in a very good way though in need of a stiff drink to fully capture and encompass what we had just witnessed.
This hour-long solo performance was a great success at the Edinburgh Festival and emerges in London with some alterations to the characters portrayed and, more significantly, with the actor naked rather than clothed. In every sense this is a stripped down production. As the audience takes its seats, the performer – handsome, well endowed, tattooed, and toned, but splashed with white clownish face-paint and somehow fragile too – is already on stage. And that is all, apart from a light swinging from a chord.
What follows works on two levels that gradually merge….Scott-Rowley introduces a dozen different characters, some linked to each other, such a porn star and her father, or a husband and wife in an abusive relationship, but others not. However, he is also there as himself, a self for whom the characters gradually fight for possession as the pace picks up gradually. Most of the characters have an accumulating vulnerability about them – a female vagrant menaced by a policeman, a gay model defiantly unembarrassed by our gaze yet weighed down by previous griefs. But there are abusers too: a mendacious lecturer on spiritualism whose very precision of diction mocks the lies he tells, and a violent husband and porn addict.
Acting and bouffon-exaggeration fuse here to create a gallery of grotesques who are nevertheless extremely funny. This is a layered show as well as a full-on one, and no more so when it is at its most sexualised: to have a naked man acting out the web-cam work of a porn star was revealing in every way. What should on the face of it be just crude and shocking is in fact thought-provoking and more than worth playing over in one’s memory. There also can only be huge admiration for the technical skill involved in switching from one character to another while creating a distinctive physical and emotional language for each. The physical and mental stamina required for such an intense performance is huge (no surprise that there is only one show each day). Everything depends on the performer, though the lighting effects and sound track are well integrated at particular points.
Commentators in Edinburgh remarked on a debt to Beckett, and it that indeed is true; but more evident in London is the kinship to Mr Bean and further back to Chaplin and all of the other melancholic clowns who express their sense of alienation from and rejection of the world by a unique physical externalising of an inner pain, sadness distilled into movement. However, here there is also a sassy and melancholic text of quality that interpenetrates the language of gesture with powerful effect.
And so, inevitably, to the question of nakedness. The immediate question is whether this is necessary or gratuitous, and if it is the former, then what and how does it add to the experience of the piece? Scott-Rowley says clearly in his pre-show interview that his intention was to introduce greater fragility and vulnerability into his performance, and this is certainly the case here. Several of the characters are in a position of exploitation or at the receiving end of violence: the nakedness of the performer intensifies our perception of the cruelty and manipulation involved.
But going beyond that, there is something very pure and distilled about seeing a naked actor transform himself across gender and age, class and character, with no external assistance at all, into a gallery of highly contrasted characters. This is stripped down performance art in every sense where only the talent of the actor can cross the bridge between the unchanging naked form and the character kindled into life in the imagination of the audience. At times as the characters fight for possession of his body, Scott-Rowley seems like one of those unfinished statues by Michelangelo, the captive struggling to be free of the block of marble, yet seemingly still capable of morphing at any moment into something or someone else.
Whether intentionally or not, this performance raises deep questions about our own conventions on nakedness in public performance and where the boundaries of embarrassment are to be found. Paradoxically, the normal expectations are reversed: the person who is exposed is in charge and can set the pace, whereas we, the clothed audience, disconcerted and unsure how to react, are the more easily led to where the performer then seeks to take us. In the hands of a responsible performer such as Scott-Rowley, this can be quite an adventurous ride, and one by the end of which we have literally gone below the surface and no longer really notice the nakedness. He has got under our skin just as we have seen beneath his.
This is undeniably a dark show, with the comedy arising from irony or visual juxtaposition as much as from joy or high spirits. However, the brio of the performer together with the humane imagination of the rounded clown adds a warmth and courage from within that balances out the gloom. The clown certainly does have a heart and a soul.
The show is both uncomfortable to watch and mesmeric. It is as brave and remarkable a performance as you will see in London this year, or any year, and should be on anyone’s must-see list when it returns to town, as it surely will. And despite the title, it is in fact very culturally significant too, though without any of the self-regarding pomposity that usually attends shows that make such a claim!