There were some good political points made here in Wild Bore, a show which in its confronting way was almost destined for success in Edinburgh. But before it tours more generally a quarter of an hour could be lost to advantage so as to create a tighter, leaner, more disciplined sequence.
It seems an admission of defeat to say that a theatre work is unreviewable, but it is indeed tempting to fold away the lap-top altogether after viewing Wild Bore, a surreal burlesque of the business of reviewing and reviewers, which now comes to London after a very successful debut at the Edinburgh Festival.
This is not because it is too shocking, though plenty of the audience were clearly taken aback by the more remorselessly scatological parts of it; nor because it is bad and incompetent, though it is certainly unevenly performed and thematically repetitious; nor because it is blatantly unfair to reviewers, who are fair game, though its scrutiny of critics is solely from the performer’s aggrieved perspective.
No, the problem is rather that, like the famous mirror scene in The Lady from Shanghai, any commentary will just join the endless sequence of recessive critical reflections and refractions that already provide the bulk of the text in the performance, cleverly assembled as it is by writer and co-performer, Zoë Coombs Marr.
The cast carefully inhibit most possible angles of critical approach by covering and satirising all their previous reviews. Best, perhaps, simply to describe what is there and then the readers can make up their own mind as to whether it is a cocktail they want to sample…..
We start with three naked backsides exposed on a trestle table. Some fairly expert wiggling as reviews are read simulates the way critics are said to deliver their reviews. Some of this is initially quite funny, as the laboured epithets, wild exaggerations, and extremely pretentious language of some reviews seemed ripe for ridicule, especially when taken out of context. Some of these reviews seemed bizarrely harsh and dismissive of each of the three women solo performers and thus quite deserving of this satirical treatment.
From here an ever more elaborate and mad-cap set of riffs on this material developed, which was pacey, surreal and technically highly creative. Verbally it became repetitive and lacking in the sustaining power of wit; but visually it was consistently imaginative and provoking. Here great credit belongs to Danielle Brustman for sets and costume of consistently zany inventiveness.
Especially powerful were the head-coverings shaped like peaches which closed over the heads of the performers, imitating backsides opening and closing. Banquet tableaus worthy of Bunuel come and go, and there is a lot of provocative nudity too, which as so often with nudity is a tribute to the artfulness of the costume designer as well. What has to be shed matters just as much as what is then revealed….
Coombs Marr and her collaborators Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott are confident and experienced solo performers and gel well as a team. The solo opportunities here are of variable quality, so that one feels sometimes they are deliberately playing down to their critics; but their concerted efforts possess consistent energy and raw invention.
At its best the show has a free-wheeling Dadaist eccentricity that defies full explanation while offering a continual visual procession of disconcerting happenings that are never dull.
This is one of those evenings where mishaps appear to occur spontaneously but which are clearly intended to be part of the action. Audience members leave, stage managers apologise for delays, and performers anticipate disasters, and yet all the mayhem goes just as intended.
Randomness is calculated with precision, taboos are crossed with pre-prepared panache, and rage is properly synthesised. Sometimes it all seems just a tad too clever and pleased with itself, as one possible objection to another is confronted, but pizzazz carries it through, just about.
Late on the three women leads were joined by Krishna Istha. His omission from the programme was another deliberate ‘accident’ intended to stress the continual overlooking of transgender performers, and his presence increased the wattage and bite of the final sections considerably.
Is the show fair to critics, and do reviewers deserve any such fairness? Certainly there is a strong prosecution case to be made, and the performers do it memorably here. But you could equally argue that many of the faults of the reviewers are really more defects in the organisation of theatre as a whole. The press night early on in a run is rarely a performance that presents material to best advantage: even the slickest productions need time to bed down. It might be a whole different story if reviewers came along a bit later.
Likewise, very short turn-around times mean that there is little time for mature consideration of opinions or extravagant wording that may not be the settled view of the writer.
Reviewers have few words at their disposal and have to make up for the fact that the reader will often not have been in the audience. Opinions therefore have to be presented without the qualifications and caveats of a standard op-ed, and in a starkly imagistic way that attempts to bring the experience of the evening, good or bad, to vivid life. There is a narrow line between successful evocation and absurd over-writing, between fair appraisal with helpful suggestions for improvement, and an easy cruel quip that can send a performer to bed crying into their pillow.
Reviewers deserve no special sympathy or indulgence, but we are a necessary part of the theatrical story, deserving neither the extremes of excoriation or adoration from performers and creatives according to whether they are blamed or praised. In fact in many ways the situation has improved in recent years now that blogging has brought in so many diverse audience members to offer their post-show commentary.
One can almost say that a ‘fifth wall’ has fallen between audience and reviewers now that print reviews are fading in significance and online commentary continues to grow.
There were some good political points made here, in a show which in its confronting way was almost destined for success in Edinburgh. But before it tours more generally a quarter of an hour could be lost to advantage so as to create a tighter, leaner, more disciplined sequence.