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27 February 2019

Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck asks: is it too soon to write a play about Donald Trump?

Plus: I’m a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings.

By Helen Lewis

How far should artists allow the bleeding edge of the present into their work? The performance artist Bryony Kimmings supplies one answer in I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, which uses video, music and old-fashioned projection to tell the story of her baby son Frank’s terrifying seizures, the end of her relationship and her own descent into the hell of post-natal depression.

In under 80 minutes, Kimmings goes from cracking jokes in gym gear to the depths of misery, as she imagines herself drowning in the stream outside the cottage where she lived during her son’s illness. Along the way, we meet her vicious, self-hating inner monologue – which has the voice “of a middle-aged male TV executive, for some reason”; see a pastiche of a horror film; and finally hear how she rebuilt her life, to the accompaniment of a strenuous weightlifting session.

Kimmings has never been afraid to let her life into her work: one previous show chronicled her attempt to trace the partner who gave her an STI. This one arose, she tells us, because her therapist suggested that she should relive the traumatic parts of her life but try to see them objectively. Her dressing-up box provides the necessary distance. Nonetheless, I’m A Phoenix, Bitch, feels exceptionally raw. Its hardest lines land like a right hook: the doctor who casually tells her that Frank, after months of seizures, “will never be a doctor or a lawyer now”, or the two women who laugh at his steroid-bloated face in the supermarket.

Through the staging and video design, Kimmings attempts to demonstrate how mental illness feels from the inside. That these are her own experiences raises the stakes – and makes reviewing an ethical dilemma: how do you critically appraise a person’s whole life? I wish I hadn’t seen her Twitter feed, where she noted before the first performance that “I have always sought to make things from my personal experience as a way of both processing and helping others. It would be crazy to say this doesn’t sometimes effect [sic] my everyday life… I want people to know before this run that I am fine. I am back on medication after a very tough relapse at Christmas.”  

Like confessional journalism, this kind of confessional theatre draws its power from the pledge of authenticity. That power is undeniable – the women in front of me handed each other tissues at vital moments – but wow, does it come at a cost.

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Anne Washburn’s new play, Shipwreck, asks a different kind of question: is it too soon to write a play about Donald Trump? Subtitled “a history play about 2017”, it follows a group of bickering liberals over a chilly night trapped in a farmhouse in upstate New York (Trump voter country, or as one character describes it, “the red zone”). Laced through scenes where the mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly woke liberals wonder how the hell this happened to their country is another narrative: Mark, adopted from Kenya by white farmers, who stands alone on stage, imagining himself into being.

Mark doesn’t know where he belongs: his parents tell their white friends he’s “from Africa”, creating a special category of blackness for him, unmoored from the legacy of slavery and their prejudice about the “inner cities”. As a teenager, he wants to watch MTV; his God-fearing parents see it as Satan’s work. He imagines himself making his childhood journey to America a few hundred years earlier: still bought by a white family, still working on the farm – except this time as a slave.

We see his father, Lawrence, too: a decent man who wonders why someone like him, who has adopted a black child, is depicted by the media as a racist. (“You got me because you couldn’t afford a white baby,” he recounts the young Mark telling him.) Who votes for Trump? Both decent people and those who want to watch the world burn.

Washburn’s text resists naturalism without tipping into incoherence. Alongside the talky stuff, there are two nightmarish scenes – in the first, Trump strikes a bargain with George W Bush to wrestle for the presidency; later, a half-naked Trump, painted gold, roars at the FBI director James Comey like Colonel Kurtz doing a Vegas residency. These are weird and funny, but too long, and overall there are several places where a few judicious cuts to the three-hour-plus running time would be much appreciated.

Washburn is undoubtedly a major writer – there is a tone here you can instantly identify as “Washburnian” – and she is well-served by the uniformly excellent cast and the eerie design. (A huge blue ring pulses above the circular stage, like a celestial Amazon Alexa.) Still, it feels like a special kind of hell to watch people say the kind of things you’ve said about Trump and realise that one day this will all be history too. The boundary between the real world and the stage is an uncomfortable place to live. 

“I’m a Phoenix, Bitch” is at BAC until 9 March and Attenborough Centre , Brighton 3-7 May; “Shipwreck” runs until 30 March

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch
Bryony Kimmings
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11

Anne Washburn
Almeida Theatre, London N1

This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics