Pros: Inventive and inclusive dance theatre. A moving and necessary exploration of domestic violence.
Cons: While the piece’s educational mission can’t be faulted, it could have explored the psychology of the subject matter more creatively.
‘Welcome to the party!’ Music is blaring, and drinks are being poured. ‘Help yourself to popcorn, marshmallows, what can I get you my love?’ Beverly is having a party, but it won’t all be fun and games. A collaborative, participatory piece, Smack That (a conversation) addresses the subject of domestic abuse. It uses the real-life testimony of the performers as its script, allowing them to tell their harrowing stories through their own and each other’s words.
There are six Beverlys, dressed in identikit sparkly grey dresses, white trainers, and wigs of long silver hair, chatting away as the audience take their seats in a circle. Silver balloons and little grey gift boxes are scattered around. The grey colour scheme, which contrasts strongly with the vivacious performers and their bright personalities hints at how pernicious domestic abuse can be, and how it leeches the colour from everything in the lives of those who experience it.
But less of that heavy talk – it’s a party! The Bevs break into a dance with high energy and passion, exhaling in unison as they twirl and twerk, whooping and encouraging each other into daring skids across the floor and feisty high-kicks. Text is woven into these dance sections, tracing the women’s trajectory from ordinary young girls to women who find themselves confused, manipulated, and sliding into abusive relationships.
The transitions between sections are effective. A game of ‘never have I ever’, in which audience and performers stand up each time something applies to them, slips from harmless party faux-pas such as double dipping a carrot or falling over on the dance floor into ‘never have I ever been forced to take drugs’ or ‘never have I ever had my children threatened.’ Again and again, the Beverlys rise quietly to their feet – sometimes one, sometimes several, sometimes all six. On the night I attended the audience remained seated, but no doubt other audiences will include people willing to stand with the Beverlys and disclose their experiences of abuse. Being a catalyst for conversation and social change is a huge part of the piece’s mission. A psychologist was stationed in a quiet room outside, ready to talk to anyone affected by the content.
Part of the Barbican’s 2018 Art of Change season, the piece has a wider remit than just performance. The company has collaborated with charity Safer Places to train staff at arts venues (including The Barbican) to become part of J9 – a national initiative to provide safe spaces for people to disclose abuse and access support. In addition, the piece is published as an Instructional Dance Theatre Play, and every November (25th November is UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) choreographer Rhiannon Faith will give away the play rights so that groups can perform the piece free to raise money for their local women’s charity.
Funding is desperately needed. During a game of pass the parcel, sobering statistics are read aloud: In England and Wales one woman is killed by her partner, or ex-partner, every three days. The impact of domestic violence costs the UK £15.7 billion annually. A woman is three times more likely to be assaulted if she is pregnant – this is given terrible poignancy as one of the performers has a visible (and real) baby-bump.
The continual shifts from games to reality reflect well how disorientating abuse can be – one minute things are sweetness itself, the next, brutal violence erupts out of nowhere. But the piece could explore the inner lives of the women more. It might benefit from balancing the educational slant with more movement material, using less literal imagery, to give an insight into the mindset of someone who’s sense of reality has been so distorted that they cannot leave their abuser.
Thankfully, the performers involved did leave their abusers, and their willingness to share their experiences was hugely generous and brave. The piece ended with a celebratory boogie, which the audience was invited to join. It’ll be one hell of a party when those statistics are erased.
(Due to the sensitive nature of this piece and the very personal content, it hasn’t been given a star rating.)
Artistic direction and choreography: Rhiannon Faith
Creative Producer: Maddy Morgan
Box Office: 0207 638 8891
Booking Link: https://tickets.barbican.org.uk/eticketing/performancelist.asp?shoID=42210
Booking until: 16th June, then touring