Bryony Kimmings is talking to her critical inner voice.
‘Haven’t we seen enough theatre shows about metal mothers?’ it says with a leer. It’s a man’s voice, specifically the voice of a male theatre producer with a slightly northern lilt.
NO we haven’t, Bryony retorts, not ones made by women.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch invites us to step into Bryony Kimmings’ inner life. Maybe not the ‘real’ life of the ‘real’ Kimmings, but the life of the Bryony who has been making autobiographical performance art for over a decade, providing us with stories, songs, dances and confessions about her sexual history, her relationships, versions of her self.
Kimmings begins the show with an introduction to her former self, wearing a sequinned dress and blonde wig she introduces us to the young performance artist Bryony who is dazzling, talented, fearless. She takes us through the stages of her career, each presenting a slightly different Bryony to the audience until we get to the present. The wig comes off, so do the heels and the sequinned dress. In black exercise kit, Kimmings changes into her trainers. This is the story of Kimmings’ early experiences of motherhood, which was certainly not a sequinned experience. It is one better suited to comfortable clothing.
Briefly, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch tells the story of Kimmings’ struggle to cope with the illness f her newborn son, and her own subsequent breakdown. It explores the dangers of isolation in early motherhood, and how pressures to mother perfectly lead women not to seek help. Most of all, it invites into an inner life in which illusions about oneself are slowly, devastatingly worn away, with devastating and possibly psychotic results.
Kimmings achieves this through an impressive development in her stage craft. Whilst her previous shows always used a variety of different forms of performance (song, dance, theatre/monologue, cabaret, asking the audience to donate their pubic hair so that she could create a moustache), I’m a Phoenix, Bitch sees Kimmings make new use of theatrical space. Throughout the show, she films herself in maquettes of homes she has lived in, with the live feeds projected onto the screen at the back of the enormous ballroom of the Battersea Art Centre. As we progress into her fraught experiences in the house where her breakdown happened, she uses a tiny model of herself, navigating a seemingly vast cottage. Eventually, Kimmings’ interior life comes to occupy the entire theatrical space, as she drowns in a vast pond projected on translucent screens. By stretching representations of her life across different parts of the stage, from miniature to large-scale projection, it feels as though Kimmings is inviting us to climb inside one her maquettes and experience for a moment the anxiety, isolation and despair of parenting a very sick child.
It asks us to think about motherhood as endurance in crisis, and to understand what happens when that endurance cracks.
Kimmings is right – there are many plays about mad mothers, and few written by women. This is one of the things that makes her show new and important. But there is also another reason this work is important. Despite a comic quip at the start, ‘welcome to my recovery’, this is not a play about recovery. As Kimmings makes clear, the young, dazzling Bryony isn’t coming back. This work, (unlike her previous show about her partner’s depression, Fake it Till You Make It) is not about a straightforward trajectory from illness to health. It’s about change. And as such it nuances the stories we so often hear about mental illness and the stage.
Bryony the phoenix doesn’t rise again from the ashes. She is transformed by them, and makes herself anew.
I’m A Pheonix, Bitch is touring and will be on at Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Brighton
3RD-7TH MAY 2019.