I will start this review by stating that I only ever consider performances as self-contained subjects of analysis; that is to say that original motives and intentions, actor profiles and rehearsal processes or economic/sociopolitical success beyond the performance itself are of no direct interest to me here. Instead, I consider how successful a performance was: how effectively characters/persons/personae were portrayed and story or narrative carried; or how effectively the political messages of the performance were elucidated, justified and/or conveyed.
I say all of this because I do wish to commend the honourable objectives extending beyond the performance itself that the theatre company, Away with the Clowns, wish to achieve. Listed as one of the top 20 richest countries in the world, it is disgusting that homelessness remains an issue in Britain today, and the way Britain continues to treat its citizens, prioritising some elect few over others is just as abominable. Away with the Clowns want to raise awareness of this huge issue, to de-stigmatise and clarify it in representing a day in the life of a homeless person, inspired by the show’s writer and only performer Lucas Bailey’s true encounters with homeless people. The main message of this performance is that homeless people are normal people, humans with feelings just as the rest of us.
This is a reality that goes without saying. However, this performance, unfortunately, does a huge — and obscure — disservice to its cause. I fail to understand how a voiceless, clownesque and, above all, inhuman character is supposed to represent a real, complex, human person. I understand the company’s objective to ease their audience into such hard-hitting, serious and guilt-invoking issues by the use of comedy, but an over-reliance on mime, puppetry and tomfoolery does not lead them into an endearing false security but instead drags them forcefully into the world of buffoonery, laughter and, actually, derision.
One audience member stated that she understood Bailey to be vulnerable, and whilst this was certainly a theme presented multiple times throughout the performance, there is nothing particularly eye-opening about it. The so-called vulnerability we see is not only cliched begging and hypothermia — not to discredit the reality of these, of course — but coinciding with the rest of the material, this is not a vulnerable person that is presented; this is a clown. We have not seen anything particularly humanised about this performer. As soon as a performer enters the stage with a red nose, the stage is immediately fictionalised, purely for entertainment and hence disingenuous.
To whittle human language down to absurd, nonsensical and one-word phrases like “Kiss?” or “Pomegranates?” is the opposite of enlightening; it oversimplifies and also renders ridiculous what it sets out to achieve. Not only does this so-called “technique” represent the homeless as ludicrous and troglodytic but it also pulls upon a vast history of the animalistic sociocultural view of the homeless: the id-led, uncultivated and monosyllabic; the inferior, incongruous and lesser-than. The reasoning behind decisions like these are far too poetic and not in a readable way. That is to say that however romantic and rich images like the sock-puppet birds, symbolic of a short-lived, passing friend, seem to the creators, this is far from as impactful for audience members. Instead, moments like these are just cute and quirky, not profound and meaningful.
More specifically — and most horrendous in my view — the sequences where Bailey is walking or running on the spot and suddenly jumps into a crouching position and hisses, groans and gurgles, again uttering a nonsensical mix of “tweet”s and “yes”s, dehumanise and monstrify the homeless. These sequences present them as gremlin-like, mad and volatile. For the creators to think this is a positive and progressive feature is ridiculous to me and far beyond any comprehension or relatability from me.
I think the problem is that there is a vast misunderstanding of the importance of context. The context here is a performance, and with theatre being inherently fictitious and illusory, all performances create separate dimensions and worlds which an audience is forced into. It is the duty of the theatremaker whenever they deal with actual issues to represent it coherently — not necessarily realistically, but coherently — to bridge the world of the performances to the real world, to expose subtext and hidden meaning and to elucidate well realities and actualities. The real decisions, meanings and reasonings behind this performance are incredibly coded in performativity, they are made to seem far from any reality, though they are taken directly from our very own. Context is missed in the writing as well, I believe, insofar as the fact that Bailey evidently pulls from many different moments experienced with many different people, and though there are many similarities, of course, the lack of subjectivity and particularisation makes the imagery and subtext difficult to manage and to grasp. Though the homeless often make street art and street performances, they are not constant puppeteers or joke-mongers. This is not a principal, minutely means of survival; it is exhausting.
I fail to see what the company are trying to raise awareness of exactly… Is it the mere fact that homeless people exist? Or is it what they go through on a day-to-day basis? Because the content and material of this performance most definitely lean towards this former objective, which is most dissatisfying and disappointing but also uninformative. There is more to their struggles than begging and cold nights. Where is the abuse, the fights, the police-led move-alongs, the fatigue, the desperation, the forced scavenging? To name an non-extensive few. Presenting us with such a parodic and showmanly persona does not demonstrate the insanely negative or the cruel. How does asking every single audience member for a kiss equate a profound and desperate yearning for love, compassion, solidarity, friendship and belonging? It doesn’t. Realities are severely downplayed or misappropriated as comedy, not successfully translated at all in any way, shape or form. Even the very title has little to do not only just with its subject matter but even with the content of the performance itself. Much too overthought, to an esoteric extent.
I will ask bluntly: if the truth of the work lies in the post-performance Q&A, technique descriptions and the campaigns outside of the performance, what is the reasoning for the performance in the first place?
What is the performance actually doing that nothing else can? How is this walking, talking, LIVE art form challenging our perceptions and realities clearer and better than any other mode of expression? How is it opening our eyes? In this performance, the homeless individual is reduced to a caricature, dehumanised and stereotyped. A few cold shudders, a few street performances and many a clichéd hat-presenting supplication does not represent the realities of homeless people but, instead, a secondary and all-too-familiar interpretation of them. It is clear, especially after the Q&A, that no in-depth research has been carried out to present the audience with anything other than the experiences they are familiar with. I would strongly suggest further communications with homeless individuals, and, if this is an issue the theatre company really do feel so strongly about, I fail to see why they did not cast real homeless people in the performance, recounting their experiences and enriching the material and content.
If I have not made it clear enough, I am saying that, rather than the reality of the homeless, what is represented in this performance is an everyday perception — the few things which the audience already witness themselves in the streets of the UK and already know. No awareness can be raised from this. And for a performance that aims to marry the audience with their equals, the use of fragmentation, buffoonery and animalism is an obscure way of going about it and a surefire way to create more alienation. The over-performative nature of this piece of theatre makes it almost entirely unrelatable to real-life issues.