I’m a Phoenix, Bitch Review by Darby Turnbull

***** stars

Before I delve into the magnificent catharsis of, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch; I would like to break form and share my personal experience of Bryony Kimmings’ work. In 2014 her and her then partner Tim brought their transcendent evocation of living with and loving someone with a mental illness Fake it till you make it to Melbourne and around the world. I consider it one of the most important artistic experiences of my life, in that it completely changed my attitude towards my mental illness and subsequently the course of my life. The morning after, I sent her an email thanking her and Tim for the experience and congratulating them on such a brilliant piece, not expecting a response. Within two hours I had heard back telling me that I’d found my tribe and that it was time for me to become an activist. Subsequently I have. I have never connected with a piece of performance art on quite that level; I had yet to find hope, connection, love or community in these experiences. That performance opened me up just enough to find it. It’s one of the things we rely on art for and I will be forever grateful for Bryony Kimmings.

The spectre of Fake it, till you make it, hangs over her newest piece, currently showing at Fairfax Studio. That piece was a beautiful testament to the love and connection that her and her partner shared at the point in their lives. 5 years later, she’s back and solo. She’s still as wise, charming, funny and generous with herself but as she explores over 90 minutes, she has been changed profoundly by her experiences and there is a new, harder, more grounded Bryony. When I saw her last, she was incandescent. She pays tribute to her old self from her first entrance and the woman she was before these experiences is honoured throughout but there is also a mourning for her, the harrowing experiences of the last four years have left their mark and like the brilliant autobiographical performance artiste she is, she’s sharing her growth with us in a way that is indelibly authentic and open hearted.

At its core; I’m a Phoenix, bitch (What a brilliant, apt title!) is about loss and reclamation. She weaves her tale about how after the triumph of Fake it, her relationship broke down, her dream home turned into a haunted house and she became a parent to her beautiful son; Frank and developed post-partum psychosis. Frank is a consistent and heroic presence throughout, one of her key strategies is to record him messages. One of the most vital and ground breaking and vital pieces of this piece is the unflinching and gut wrenching ways she depicts the ways her mind and body were distorted after she gave birth. Our society is not particularly kind or well informed to the experiences of motherhood and the immeasurable toll it takes on individuals. This show tackles that stigma head on; what it Fake it did for depression, anxiety and suicidality this does for post-partum depression, psychosis and the sheer fortitude and resilience it takes to parent a child.

In the first weeks of his young life Frank developed epilepsy and subsequently endured months of endless seizures and invasive treatments which have subsequently had a significant impact on his brain’s development. I won’t print the term that is used as it’s archaic and demeaning. Bryony very aptly says, the upcoming apocalypse will have nothing on what this little guy has been through.

With her creative team she has created a visceral depiction of the traumatic impact of these experiences. It’s a testament to her gifts as a performer that she can take her audience inside her mind with such courage and ingenuity but also how beautifully she connects with us to make it safe for both her and us to do so. Stylistically it recreates the trauma of a psychotic episode, aided by Will Duke’s ingenious projections, Johanne Jenson’s sublime lighting design and Lewis Gibson’s skin crawlingly brilliant sound design. Given what she endured, it seems only appropriate that they be brought to life as a horror movie.

But there is also the morbid wit and insight of the songs composed by Tom Parkinson. These are staged against beautifully detailed, micro sets and are filmed by Bryony as she performs whilst they’re projected above on an uncompromising scale. What makes it bearable is the conviction with which Bryony takes care of herself; she may be evoking her guilt, shame and doubt; it has a voice and it’s a middle aged, white cis-het man, that she voices herself; but it is done with strength and intentionality. She even dissects her own strength through an increasingly rigorous weight-lifting session. I didn’t leave feeling as though she was masochistically recreating her experience but grateful for the importance and vitality of what she’s sharing. It doesn’t feel masochistic, it feels vital and graceful. Kirsty Housley’s co-direction is invaluable, supporting someone to achieve their vision, especially when it comes from such a deep, personal space is a deeply rewarding challenge but also a testament to her ingenuity, integrity and support for her collaborator.

Writing a review of a piece of art is always difficult. Rarely, if ever do I feel like that what I have written will do justice to what I have experienced. This is one of the most open-hearted pieces of theatre I have ever seen and once again I find myself feeling immense gratitude for the journey I have taken with Bryony Kimmings. You will leave feeling empathetically fatigued, the weight of your experiences will still be on your shoulders; for me they didn’t feel lighter, but they felt different, like they had moved and somehow more manageable.

I’m a phoenix, bitch is playing at Fairfax Studio, Melbourne Arts Centre until September 15th.

Performance: 5       Writing: 5         Direction: 5

Sound/Composition: 5     Lighting: 5        Set: 5

 

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