Pros: A challenging and thought-provoking piece of performance art that rewards your curiosity.
Cons: If you see this in the wrong mood, you might consider it pretentious, vapid drivel.
‘Tonight the tongue is a weapon,’ Christopher Brett Bailey announces, somewhat belatedly, around forty minutes into the show. But you really should know that by now.
For an hour said tongue wags, bites and slashes its way through a stream of poetry, lists, jokes and some excellent storytelling, culminating in an extraordinary musical performance that straddles the line between what is thought-provoking and what is just unbearable. I loved it, but not everybody will.
Before you go (and I advise that you do), know what it is you’re going to see. This Is How We Die is less theatre than performance art. Bailey sits at his desk under a single spotlight reading to you for the best part of an hour with nothing to accompany him but a rarely touched glass of water. This is less a ‘performance’ than a reading of an extended piece of beat poetry. There is definitely influence from William Borroughs, and also perhaps elements of Samuel Beckett’s Breath, not only in the machine gun delivery of the piece but in the way that it challenges you to consider the differences between language and meaning.
As the reading comes to a close the lights darken to pitch black and Bailey joins a quartet of musicians at the back of the stage. The next ten minutes of migraine-inducing musical crescendo gets so loud and so intense that immediately before it cuts out you really feel like you’re about to lose your mind forever. Bailey seems to have a great deal to say about the death of language and by the end of this wall of noise you feel like you’ve definitely experienced the death of something. It’s a remarkably cathartic sensation.
For the first ten minutes though, I hated it. I hated Bailey, a sort of young Christopher Walken with cool hair, I hated what he was saying (or not saying, I cleverly thought to myself) and I hated everyone around me and their also cool hair for clearly loving every minute of it. Bailey is so unapologetic in the difficulty of this performance as a viewing experience that it takes a long time to get in tune with what he is saying. In fact, the opening section of the poem is delivered at such a break neck speed that you almost feel like Bailey is deliberately trying to make you struggle. There’s plenty of food for debate here on how much an audience legitimately has to suffer to satisfy a craving to achieve ‘art’, whatever that may be.
As a piece of writing alone this is excellent, and for most of the hour it basically is a piece of writing alone; there’s no other aspect to the performance other than Bailey’s reading. Parts of it are electrifyingly good, particularly Bailey describing his girlfriend’s parents. The mother is a body builder (she does nothing wrong ‘apart from putting her mouth on a chicken’s asshole without consent’) and the father is a neo-nazi quite literally shaped like a swastika.
There is also a great moment where Bailey over-literalises his girlfriend’s advice to ‘go fuck yourself’ and proceeds to take himself out on a date and play both male and female parts in the courting process. Oh, and there is a great story about decapitating a gangster priest in the middle of the desert while introducing a six year old shop assistant to the Ziggy Stardust album.
Yes, it’s bonkers, but you should broaden your horizons by seeing it. If you do hate it, feel redeemed that the Ovalhouse is a lovely performance space with a great bar area and really friendly staff.
Author: Christopher Brett Bailey
Performer: Christopher Brett Bailey
Producer: Beckie Darlington
Booking Until: 21 June 2014
Box Office: 020 7582 7680
Booking Link: http://www.ovalhouse.com