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[Performance Analysis:] THE NIGHT LARRY KRAMER KISSED ME, New Wimbledon Studio, London.

For clarification: The title given to the 'character' in this play is Performer, and this will be distinguished in this review from the noun, 'performer', by the apt capital 'P'.

I shall start with the positives. Sound design is incredibly articulate, the best I have experienced in a long time, in fact. It is crisp, well layered, well structured and authentic where it ought to be. The sound designer for this performance demonstrates great skill, talent, diligence and artistic awareness. Beautifully designed.

Set design (by David Shields) communicates effectively and pleasingly not only the sentimental nature of the text, with the suspended lightbulbs representative at times of the 'stars' to which Performer (John Bell) speaks, and the candles symbolic of votive candles, but also the fragmented and eclectic nature of the written text itself. Props are sparse but very effectively used and imaginative. The handkerchiefs being symbolic of all of the men Performer could have sex with, for example, is a clever, if a little on the nose, nod to the handkerchief code.

Slightly negative now… Lighting (designed by Aaron Dooster), beyond these said lightbulbs and candles, suffers from a notable overkill with the additional LED bars, the lanterns behind the set and the various washes and spots. There are, indeed, some wonderful details that Dooster has ensured to include, such as the pulsing fade spot on Bell’s left side as we imagine him in the back of a taxi, as though the passing streetlights are illuminating his face, but timing here is slightly off, and realisation is altogether too unnaturally repetitive and structured; there lacks a sense of the organic in these details. Additionally, the decision to flood the house head-on with intense lights between scenes is both unnecessary and subtractive, re-awakening and intensifying the audience’s awareness of the self and the other, taking them out of the world of the play and into the uncomfortably lit house. I would remove this altogether. I should clarify: wonderfully designed lighting, technically, but fallible in terms of relevance and congruity with style and function.

Now, on to the writing. The messages, symbolism and meanings behind this performance are certainly poignant and honourable, and the poetic style employed by the performance is a sweet and thoughtful approach, when observing the context of the AIDS crisis, for example. However, the dramatic text fails to organise, balance and marry its content in such a way that a consistent reading can be offered.

I should clarify first that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with a performance that aims merely to represent in succession various aspects of the experiences, feelings or aesthetics of a particular community — in this instance, the gay community of the late 20th century — or of a particular person or character, and that aims to do so with an actor-led approach, using faceless, nameless figures [as 'Performer'] and changing locations, uniting its content solely through theme, meaning or vision. However, such a performance must be dedicated to this form of theatre and storytelling from the very beginning and must be consistent in its representations. This is not the case for this performance.

This dramatic text offers until its middle a simple and somewhat poetical retelling of a character’s history, and we expect to be guided through his life and experiences during the AIDS crisis. However, there is a pivotal moment in this performance, when Bell represents, without introduction, contextualisation or preparation, the character of the young gay child [who I can only assume is a younger version of this original character, though this is not made entirely clear].

After this, we are presented a range of scenes and sequences wherein Bell offers us a bizarre form of multi-roling, representing the act itself of gym-going and club-going as a gay man, for example, as opposed to his character performing these activities himself. Suddenly, our original shy, quirky and innocent character is transformed without reason into a seedy, rather ‘rapey’ promiscuous man at a club, aiming to have sex with every man in his sight. This latter representation is devoid of relatability, of the human, and is an exaggerated and archetypical representation unmarriable with this former character we are first presented. But then, straight after these scenes, we get the gentle, poetical original character back, and we continue as though nothing has happened whilst Performer dedicates a [very long-winded] verse to the character ‘Pete’, underplayed until the very end of the performance and thus unworthy of such stage time.

In this tumultuous display, we lose all sense of Performer’s identity, and an overly stylised and hyperbolic delivery style has taken over what was previously a somewhat understated chronological narrative. I should clarify: there is no sense of gradual transition from the latter to the former, no sense of climax or growth, nothing to lead us from one style to another; we are simply launched between the two.

Here, all sense of this performance’s identity and voice becomes confused and untraceable, and this is due to both this unsteady delivery style and this extensive fluidity of character. These scenes and sequences have no distinct correlation, other than that they are [loosely] related by the themes of gender and sexuality and the generalised 20th-century gay male's experience. How does the young gay child’s newfound interest in The Village People, for example, relate to Pete’s death?

Delivery style is a notable issue for this performance, and I should emphasise that merely using poetry throughout does not make for consistency in voice and form. Poetry comes in many various distinct forms, as evidenced in this one performance, and comparing the language and structure of the opening scene — one that approximates, for its majority, natural speech patterns — with the heavily formulaic gym-going sequence seeing each segment end with the refrain, ‘that’s why I go to the gym’, exposes this stark inconsistency in form and manner.

The writing is in great danger of becoming repetitive and monotonous, and this is primarily due to the much-too-similar poetic devices that Drake employs: anaphoras (I think to the segments starting with ‘held’, ‘I ran for’ and ‘the viewing’), refrains, and repetitive sequences like ‘A1, 2, 3, 4, […] B1, 2, 3, 4, […] C1 [and so on]’. Whilst such devices can certainly provide a text with structural stability and form, here I believe it simply renders the material univocal, monotonous, uninspired. The final speech, for instance, which should be very impassioned and sentimental, is, in fact, jarring and lacklustre, and this is due to the rigid syllabic structure and the bombastic/hyperbolic literary voice we are offered. It is also particularly repetitious in regard to its content; its message is communicated in full very early in, and any further communications simply regurgitate in other words the very same thing.

This brings me on to acting. And I shall continue to pursue the efficacy of this final speech before giving an overall assessment of Bell's performance. Bell performs this final speech with a forced passion, aiming distinctly to typify the sentimentality and emotional significance behind the text, as opposed to channelling his efforts into the specificities, idiosyncrasies, state and psychology of his character that will, in fact, naturally invoke this desired feeling in his audience. This forcedness is perceptible throughout this performance, particularly in the delivery of verse but notably in this aforementioned club sequence that sees him flailing around the stage in a [rather ridiculous, I must say] display of his character’s drunkenness, primitivism and lack of bodily control.

Bell certainly plays far too much into the unnaturalness of the poetic text, and over-expressivity compromises the integrity, relatability and humanity of his character. Rather, he presents caricatures: that of the child, that of the weight-lifting egotist, etc., and so it is difficult to feel truly connected with his profiles beyond the themes they represent. With these aforementioned repetitions within the dramatic text, with the repeated short dance transitions whose effectiveness and significance rather wear off by the third time — notably, a directorial issue, though perhaps an editorial one, too — and, finally, with these archetypical, concrete caricatures, observing any real humanity and forming any profound connection with Performer is emphatically impossible. Bell notably performs with good transformativity and great energy, but a lack of naturalism in his performance, and within the role itself, makes him largely inaccessible in this way.

I shall end on perhaps a personal criticism that I should also clarify does not in any way influence my review here. This is, yet again, a depiction of the gay male set on representing him as promiscuous, an abuser of alcohol and drugs, unstable and abusive. I really fear how detrimental to our collective identity and psychology such constant and monolithic representation is. Ultimately, we are left with yet another cliché representation that is lacking in veracity and that rejects and annihilates any palpable sense of the world of the queer individual outside of the primitive and the lewd.

“Monotonous, incomplete, crudely eclectic.”


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