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Not satisfied with showcasing some of the finest spoken-word around so far this year, Blahblahblah also bagsied the final performance of John Berkavitch’s ‘Shame’, before the Bristol-based series of events goes all French on us and takes a month-long summer break. For those uninitiated, Shame is a performance of spoken-word and dance constructed around Berkavitch’s delving into his most shameful experiences; and how to do it justice? Let’s start from the beginning...
Switch from the cosiness of Blah’s habitual jaunt of the Old Vic’s Basement to its slightly more imposing but equally ‘in-the-thick-of-the-action’ Studio Theatre, add irreverent wordsmith Adam Kammerling to warm up those creaky boards with meditations on contemporary male sexuality versus yearning for nineties Disney characters and all were soon ready for the main act.
Berkavitch - under full stage lighting - casually briefed the audience on the origins and purpose of his show before descending the room into darkness and immersing those amassed into the recesses of his subconscious. From hereon he provided a deliciously non-linear narrative, experienced largely as self-contained flashbacks within the wider saga of Berkavitch’s sexual encounter with a newlywed love interest. These constituted several scenes, accompanied by stunning visuals projected on to the entire performance. All this was accompanied by a soundtrack of many different flavours - though largely echoing the ‘street’ vibe of the show - provided by Jamie Woon and Royce Wood Junior.
Credit is also due to his remarkably talented break-dancing dance crew, who were on-point at every stage of the performance. The power of their movement deserves special mention not only in that it had the perspiring energy of a quasar galaxy but also that it reflected the dynamism of the performance more generally. Incorporating contemporary and break elements, the performers – Berkavitch himself included – oscillated between breathtaking light-footedness and the more shockingly violent. At their most menacing, there was something distinctly reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange’s Droogs about Berkavitch’s troupe of dancers, only more belligerent and potentially on something as equally as hard as Vellocet or Synthmesc. Replace the canes with mean-looking umbrellas; the Beethoven with hip-hop, graffiti and urban decay, and you have an idea of the oppressive aura experienced by Berkavitch’s narrator.
Angular, geometric projections of light harmonised with the dance. Comic-book stylisations and animations of suburban Britain provided a mise-en-scène with which to some extent we are all familiar. Other settings included a coffeehouse where Berkavitch’s narrator worked which was certainly no Pret-a-Manger. Here’s where he engaged the audience for their orders as a less than attentive and ever-so-slightly prurient barista. The four performers operated often as a unit – dancers and umbrellas morphing at one point into a moving bicycle traversing through an estate in one of the scenes from Berkavitch’s childhood – it was pure science.
You have to be impressed with Berkavitch, who essentially performs an hour-long monologue – while also performing physically – that’s as continually fresh as it is raw. Poetry and spoken-word is rarely as good as when it melds so well with the rest of the performance that you barely notice it’s there and have to double-take to appreciate the genius of it, “she’s a damsel in distress in a damp, silk dress”. All boxes were ticked – rhymes that spat, alliteration, metaphor, wackiness and – without wanting to spoil the show completely – heartache.
What also dazzles is the sheer scope and execution. When it comes to performance, the term three-sixty degrees is usually appropriated by aged, millionaire 'rockstars' that prance about on a circular arena stage. What Shame does, however, is a far truer and purer interpretation. Every medium is utilised - music, dance, performance, poetry, lights, visuals.
Rich in diverse themes including coming-of-age, friendship, masculinity and family bonds, the show is as resonant as it gets. Although naturally built around Berkavitch’s own experiences and ruminations on shame and embarrassment, whether intended or not, the end result is that of a mirror. A mirror, in this specific case, to the audience – and Berkavitch opened the floor to any member wishing to share their own shameful experiences. While no takers from the reticent crowd made themselves known, it no doubt had many plumbing the depths of their memories and psyche.
Though there are surely plenty who will be heading online to replay, it’s unfortunate that no future audience will get to see how brilliant this performance is in its live iteration. Nevertheless, those who have experienced ‘Shame’ in all its blush-inducing glory certainly won’t forget it, and those convened this month at the Old Vic were privileged to see it bow-out in such punch-packing form.
Photography: Darren Paul Thompson