UK performance maker Bryony Kimmings isn’t the first to take issue with the lexicon that has grown around cancer.
But she is, as far as I can see, the first to do it in the form of a show with songs.
In her playfully didactic, feminist Pacifist’s Guide, Kimmings interrogates the language that has grown up around the disease, one that casts those with cancer as “fighters” engaged in a “war”, “struggle” or “battle”.
If all goes well, they are “survivors”. They “beat cancer”.
If not, then the patient is open to suggestions they did not “fight” hard enough. Perhaps they even “surrendered”.
Is it possible, Kimmings asks, to speak about the disease in another way?
On stage throughout the show, Kimmings begins with an explanation of the genesis of the project and shares her process. She is as candid as she is self-deprecating, walking us through her wobbly pitch meeting with British theatre company Complicité, her encounters with women living with and dying from the illness, and her dive into the literature of cancer, including Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, from which comes the show’s principal stage metaphor, “the kingdom of the sick”.
One of the women Kimmings met in her research phase plays a significant part in the production. Enter Lara Veitch, a self-confessed non-actor and singer born with a rare genetic disposition and the subject of drastic surgeries and chemotherapy treatments since infancy.
An amiable double act crystallizes with Kimmings and Veitch giving their contrasting perspective on the show-making process, and on the friendship that developed, then faded when Veitch was diagnosed with a tumour on her spine at the same time Kimmings discovered she was pregnant.
The latter part of the show is given over to the interplay of those two experiences, which comes to a peak in a visually stunning reveal of the kingdom of the sick, a place Kimmings never expected to visit herself.
Directed by Kirsty Hously for Complicté, A Pacifist’s Guide aims for a homespun feel for much of its length, with Kimmings chattily communicating her thoughts. She’s very capably supported by very capably supported by Eva Alexander, Gemma Storr, Lottie Vallis and Elizabeth Esguerra, versatile performers who act, sing, dance, play instruments, lip-synch recorded conversations and perform stagehand duties.
But it’s Veitch who comes to command our attention with her story, her quiet charisma and her tremulous singing, which proves captivating.
The show’s coda, which relies on an element of audience participation, might strike some as a kind of theatre-as-church ambush. I found it extremely affecting, not least because, as my sister reminded me in the morning of seeing the show, our dad died of cancer five years ago to the day.
A Pacifists’ Guide delivers a hopeful message but not an unrealistic one. It certainly doesn’t make the kingdom of the sick seem any less scary. What it does and successfully, I think, is remind us that, in lieu of some sudden medical breakthrough, community and companionship in times of crisis is all we can really hope for.