[written for the introduction to the play text of Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It Till you Make It]
1 The Bryony-ness of Bryony Kimmings
I am trying to think about the Bryony-ness of Bryony Kimmings. I have decided I want to write about a distinctive and perhaps slightly intangible quality that all her work seems to have – a muscular dynamism, a technicolour vividness, an aura of something, a certain kind of charm maybe, a thing, a Bryony thing, a Bryony-ness. What is the Bryony-ness of Bryony Kimmings? What is this elusive component that so compelling animates her work? It is not just charisma, it is more profound and more artful; something more calculated. I want to try and describe it but I am struggling. I am trying to pull myself from vagueness and cliché towards a more precise description of what makes Bryony’s work so interesting and so popular but I keep finding myself back again at the Bryony-ness.
Part of the difficulty I think is that memory is failing me. I have seen at least one version of every piece Bryony has made since I first saw Sex Idiot in a small and very crowded room at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010. I have seen some of those pieces a number of times or in a number of incarnations, but despite or perhaps because of this when I try and picture these shows the images are a disordered mess. A riot of cartoon costumes and machine washable fabrics. A mess of olds songs and new songs. A carnival of faces from the ridiculous to the heartbreaking. Moments of casual spontaneity and elegant craft. Stories real and imagined.
2 Fairy Tales
Perhaps part of the reason for this confusion is that a certain slipperiness of images and of meaning is an essential part of the Bryony-ness that I’m trying to describe.
Like fairy tales, Bryony’s shows are full of things that are constantly becoming other things. A science experiment that turns into a rave. A confession that turns into a pop song. Props that are first one thing and then another. A bouquet of flowers that transforms into a weapon. A bowl full of pubic hair that becomes a moustache. And always at the centre of all of this confusion is Bryony herself – cycling through a spectacular and seemingly infinite parade of costume changes; bird hunter, matador, shaman, bride, scientist, drunk clown, tropical princess. A carnival of transformations that reached its apotheosis in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model when she transformed into a different person entirely – a curly-haired palaeontologist pop star called Catherine Bennett. Even the nominally ‘real’ ‘non-performers’ who have been Bryony’s collaborators on her two most recent shows are not there to present any straightforward version of themselves – they too become unreal creatures, costumed fantasies, components in an elaborate imaginary syntax.
Whilst autobiography might provide the basis for Bryony’s work it is the way in which those real stories become part of a dynamic, symbolic landscape that sets it apart. A rich, invented world composed in colours, costumes, songs, objects and images; a fairytale realm of contested meanings and metamorphoses.
What is it that is going on in the vivid imaginary world conjured by one of Bryony’s shows?
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes describes the process of contemporary mythmaking as a series of appropriations. Stories and images are emptied of the meaning that they once had and are instead employed to consolidate a particular idea – a myth, a story about the way the world is.
I think of Bryony’s shows as a similar if perhaps more benign form of mythologising in which a constellation of signs – a speculum, a story about a sexually transmitted disease, a Spanish bullfighter, woman in a bridal gown, a list of words for a woman’s genitals – are co-opted to create a distinct new cosmogony. A new fable, nourished by the resonance of these contradictory references now employed to speak to or speak about something else; something beyond the limits of their earlier meanings. As such the show might be understood not as a story, or at least not the relatively neat relatively linear story the show blurb might suggest, but rather an accumulation of very small stories employed to express a larger idea with a rare richness and complexity.
Perhaps this is the Bryony-ness of Bryony. The ability to make one or two people on a relatively bare stage appear to be components in an elaborate symphony of voices. The quality of making from a few thin splinters of reality a self-contained universe that appears profound in its relevance and positively mythic in scale.
Here then is an imaginary world as dense and messy as life itself, and as the doors of the theatre open we are tossed into it. Dressed in feathers or silver foil or pink fairy princess taffeta Bryony reels across the stage, waving cartoon props, pulling silly faces and telling us about abjection and addiction and mental illness, a put-upon ringmaster in some ecstatic circus.
It is like a dream this world. Not in the sense that it is slow or hypnotic or surreal or any of the other things we too-readily associate with dreams. It is like a dream in that it is as vivid and sensual and pregnant with possible meanings as the experience of dreaming; propelled, like any dream, by some delirious internal logic we can’t quite figure out even once we’ve left the auditorium.
Freud described dreaming as a means of thinking by experiencing, suggesting we attach ‘complete belief to the hallucinations’ and it is only later that we recognise that we have not been experiencing anything at all, only ‘thinking in a peculiar way’. Perhaps the same is true of our journey through Bryony’s hallucinatory fables. We watch and listen to this dazzlingly entertaining procession of costumes and confessions and as we try and place these disparate pieces together we are thinking by experiencing, exploring ideas made of bodies and melodies and headdresses. Figuring something out in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible with words alone.