[Review:] KISSING REBELLION, Ovalhouse, London.
Created by Carolyn Defrin and Abigail Boucher, Kissing Rebellion is currently performing at the Ovalhouse in Kennington, London, as part of the Demolition Party 2019.
As a purely exploratory piece of theatre, investigating the relativity, contextuality, viscerality and many subjective significances of kissing, this performance is rather rich and extensive. It encapsulates rather well the multifunction as well as the emotional experience of a kiss, and, in this respect, it is rather holistic and relatable. However, it is the manner in which it does this and the friction between desired effect and actual product that complicates my reading of this performance.
Kissing Rebellion is essentially a performance consisting of storytelling, composed of narratives, anecdotes, opinions and memories that relate to one another only through theme [kissing] and the human condition. And it is most effective in the sheer range of experiences it details, from platonic kisses to romantic, from tender and intimate to superficial and ceremonial, from profound and visceral to naturalised and superfluous. It does this primarily through verbatim theatre, presenting to its audience a vast series of recordings in which interviewees elaborate on a very personal or general/social experiences of kissing, or upon the ideals they have associated with kisses themselves, explaining how sexuality, for example, interferes with the want or need to kiss. These recordings serve as either inspiration for or an overlay to the action presented on stage. My issue here, however, is not with these narratives but by whom exactly they are produced.
It seems bizarre to me to pair the actors voicing what is apparently ‘their own’ experiences of kissing, with those of the interviewees. This complicates and mystifies the voice of the performance, not only from an auditory perspective, where our ears are unsure as to whether to listen out for a recording or a real voice, but from a dramatic perspective. It becomes difficult to understand what relation the performers bear to the performance: Are they [a version of] themselves, presenting their own anecdotes and additions to the narrative? Or are they representative of those of others, the interviewees? Are they fictional characters with fictional emotions and narratives? Or are they just neutral figures, bodies in a space, embodying the generic and relatable? They cannot –– or, at least, should not –– be all three, as this makes for an overall confused or disparate voice.
There is one moment in this performance where these two voices seem to come together, and that is when we are presented a recording of one of the performers themselves with others laughing in the background. This moment finally makes for an alignment between the auditory and the visual, as the performer in question stands on stage with the rest of the ensemble who are, indeed, laughing, all facing away. We are able to cast what we acquire from the recordings onto the action on stage, onto the performers’ otherwise depersonalised bodies. Yet, we are immediately thrown out of this when music starts, accompanied by sexual moaning, and the performers start to undress. Distorting their bodies and moving unnaturally, something very ‘real’ and relatable becomes sensational, stylised and dramatic.
This performance continually struggles to find not only its voice but its means of expression, and this is most evidenced, and complicated, by two scenes in particular, one in which one performer details his love for Tom Daley, imagining a kiss with him beside a swimming pool, and another wherein a different performer performs a guitar solo of Leonard Cohen’s ‘I'm Your Man’. In this former scene, there is a plethora of differing theatrical features: direct audience address, use of character, metatheatre and, for the first time in the performance, physical movement. We also see the first and only instrument, a guitar, in this latter scene as the performer sings a seemingly completely unrelated song, performing it in a husky, sexual and deliberately masculine voice. Not only seeming irrelevant and/or exaggerative, these scenes pull from sources beyond the realm of the performance, extending to references to media and culture. This dilutes the material of the performance, and the dramatic text loses, yet again, any specificity and individuality in terms of voice.
This performance makes use of a lot of interdisciplinarity, from character representation to singing, to physical movement, to documentary theatre, to dance, to metatheatre, to mime and to the use of verbatim. For a “dance performance”, it is surprising how little dancing there actually is. Dance certainly features in this performance, yet it is just that: a feature. Much more characteristic of this performance is, actually, its [over]use of stillness, tableaux and physical movement. Hence, from the off, there is a thorniness in the way that this performance identifies itself. It fails to organise itself in a stable, clear, coherent and, above all, strategic manner. Having no plot or message and being, for the most part, amoralistic and apolitical, this performance remains purely investigatory, but what is actually being investigated, beyond just the mere concept of kissing, is very limited. Struggling to find its own, unique mode of expression, the dramatic text is littered with language upon language. There are much too many layers to this performance, and it is difficult to some degree to grasp the aim of it through the sheer vastness of its material.
All of this being said, there still remain some very poignant images and discourses evoked by this performance, with sexuality and its absence seemingly being of primary concern. Kisses between friends, between males and between females, kisses between imagined lovers and between strangers, sexuality and platonic love appear again and again as key themes until one performer admits that, in fact, he feels no need to kiss due to his asexuality. This is a most progressive and encouraging performance in this respect, making use of a diverse cast of varying nationalities, ethnicities and ages to decode love and its expression amongst humanity. This is definitely a mellowing, endearing and charming performance, but this feeling is mostly generated by the consideration of each scene as stand-alone and separate; when put side by side, all of the scenes seem far too disjointed or depthless.
As the performance goes on, content definitely starts to become sillier, and representation becomes too blunt and literal. An example of this is a split-scene in which two performers share a kiss whilst cooking; another pair share a kiss after brushing their teeth beside one another; and another kiss follows a couple watching TV together, with one falling asleep. Again, alone, these are endearing and adorable moments, yet it just feels as though this performance is trying to include every possible context of kissing, saying very little else about these contexts beyond their presentation. This is more the case for short scenes like these, however. Longer scenes, usually consisting of dance, resonate much more and have time to settle, seeming less fruitless and haphazard. Whilst some dances remain rather questionably esoteric against simpler, story-based ones, all dancing is fluid, articulate and seemly, though I would prefer to see more synchronicity in dances that require it.
When considering acting, there is a notable imbalance of ability across the ensemble. In the first scene –– which I initially found to be a rather strong opening until seeing the rest of the performance and noting its stylistic incongruity –– there are a few performers who are extremely credible and cogent actors, but the majority remain rather wooden and awkward to watch. There is an utter lack of realism in this performance, which could be acceptable if this first scene did not set the rest up to be so character-based.
On to the set. Being part of the Demolition Party, it is required that the set be demolished in some way. For this performance, there is a huge, sandy pit in the middle of the stage. It starts to seem as though this pit exists merely to gain entrance into the festival, being that very little action actually takes place here; in fact, the entire performance could exist without it. Considering this, the aesthetic of this performance is wildly underthought. The industrial look of this performance, with some vine leaves and a few draped curtains, does not do anything in particular to complement this performance. I could make links between flowers and love/passion/beauty, or between the sandy, dilapidated brickwork and a breakdown of memory/associations/narratives, but this just seems 1) too much of a stretch and 2) severely bombastic. Whilst the topography of this performance covers a large amount of the space, this does not feel intelligent or symbolic; it just feels as though this is all simply to avoid the untouched gaping pit, especially in the beginning when the performers are gathered around a long table, cramped in the corner of the room.
As for tech, lighting in this production was impeccable, focusing the eye and adding texture to the performance. The use of a blinding light, a row of intense lanterns positioned Upstage and aimed towards the audience, was an interesting choice. It added cyclicality to the performance and gave the feeling of entering into a new, fictive space, though I am not sure how necessary this actually was. Sound was pertinent but regularly ended much too prematurely, most notably just after one performer expresses her desire for the so-called “Kiss of Success”. Cutting short the sound effect of an applauding audience, a rather forceful sound by nature, is much too disruptive.
Music, I must say, proved this performance once more to be unsure of itself. I mentioned early on in this review one performer’s rendition of ‘I'm Your Man’, but there are also many other songs, predominantly in other languages, which cause a sense of dissimilitude in this performance. French singer Camille’s song ‘Ta douleur’, for example, used at the end of the performance, is a very particular song with a peculiar artistic vision; its employment in this performance seems unintelligent, as though used just for its rhythm and vaguely for its lyrics. Each element of a performance must have a clear, progressive reasoning, and the only thing these songs add to is a confused style. Perhaps these songs came up in the devising process as songs listened to during kisses, and this is what ‘contextualises’ them. This is the only substantial reason I can think of for the use of these songs, and even this is far too indirect; we as spectators are not made aware of the significance or relevancy of the songs.
Overall, there are certainly some powerful and intriguing elements to this performance, but its voice and style remain generally confused and incoherent. This performance still desperately needs to find its feet, still being unsure of itself, its aims and its premise. It envisions itself to be both expository and fictive, to both show and to tell, and, in doing so, it loses its grounding and essence. Is this a relation of real events? Or is this storytelling? Is this meaningful and evocative? Or is it to be taken as simple, endearing entertainment? Containing even elements of didacticism, this performance really needs to expand on its message, to stop using kissing as a simple stimulus for meaningless dramatic snippets but as the clear cause or product of a theatrical investigation. As it stands, there is definitely an exploration unfurling in this performance, and it is perfectly acceptable to present a mere exploration on stage, but there must be something to take away from this as an audience member, something thought-provoking, some sort of conclusion, whether open-ended or not. In this performance, the material is so vast and confused that absolutely no conclusion can be drawn whatsoever other than the fact that kissing exists in many forms. This is not particularly enlightening.
From the very beginning, the performance roots itself in both personal and social histories, and this is clearly deliberate, with synopses focusing on the Paris attacks of 2015 and how these apparently inspired the performance, yet, surprisingly, this has absolutely nothing to do with the performance’s content which becomes a mere slideshow of imagined, intimate scenarios, existing perfectly without any reference to these attacks, barring in the overture. This performance starts to lose depth rapidly as it goes on. I would urge Carolyn Defrin and Abigail Boucher to consider more carefully the contents of their performance and how these co-exist rather than any self-proclaimed and esoteric significance beyond the dramatic text.