Written and performed by Francesca Beard
17th to 19th May, 2018, then touring the UK
Francesca Beard is not a shaman, or a storyteller, or a hero; she is a poet, and she is a liar.
I tend to go into shows with no preconceptions or expectations. I’d like to pretend that this is a conscious decision with the aim of maintaining my unbiased integrity as a reviewer, but honestly? I’m usually just too lazy to do any research beforehand. Whew, that was an exercise in truth-telling – as is much of this one-woman show which is currently wending its way throughout the UK. Anyway, as I was saying, I didn’t know what I was expecting to happen when the show started, but it certainly wasn’t for a woman wearing an explorer’s jumpsuit and felt goggles to dramatically emerge, shrouded in smoke and lights, booming ominous/prophetic/cultish mumbo jumbo… And then to undercut all this by shrugging off the mask and awkwardly introducing herself with a goofy smile as Francesca, our guide.
This mix of high melodrama and mild self-deprecation, serious introspection and gentle meta-humour, came to define much of this 70-minute show. It was evident in the aural landscape we travelled through, which ranged from exquisite soundscapes (think birdsong and wind chimes) to freakish otherworldly laughter to an out-of-tune ditty about awkward/nasty truths. It was evident in the dramatic contrast between the slick projection art which set the magical scene, and the gaudy, tacky props and costumes worn by creatures who inhabited this land (press-ganged audience members). It was evident when Beard guided us from (intentionally) lame gags into raw spoken-word poetry about loneliness and reckless behaviour bordering on self-harm. In an echo of its theme, the production moved from fiction to reality and through the grey spaces inbetween; it was a lot to navigate on the meagre rations of a single goji berry.
The supposed plot of this piece was that we were on a heroes’ journey to find The Truth to save humanity from the post-truth era we find ourselves in. Less political commentary and more faux-fantasy saga, we trekked through the Forests of Desire, the Obsidian Cliffs, the Lava Mountain (?) and a number of similarly named locations. Each one required us adventurers to pass a test, complete a ritual, or reenact a myth. With the help of her Shaman Manual (not sure why Shamanual wasn’t punned, but oh well), various props and scrolls, and some of the braver front-row audience members, we finally made our way to the Oracles of Truth, on a journey which sometimes lagged and foundered, but was mainly quite enjoyable. I won’t reveal what we found there – you’ll have to go on your own post-truth odyssey.
The strengths of this production lay in Beard’s endearing charm, the lovely set design (dual projectors shining through haze, Pixar-esque anthropomorphic lamps crowded around artifacts, love poetry comically dropping from the ceiling on a string), and the audience interaction, which was always inclusive without being pushy or intimidating, funny and bantery without ever being mocking or disrespectful. Beard touched on some interesting concepts around the topic of truth and artifice, but never really teased out any viewpoints which were particularly complex or original, and the substance suffered from a lack of specificity or subtlety. Despite (or perhaps because of) the through-thread of the Quest plot, many segments of spoken-word poetry or musing stream of thought seemed disjointed, as if they didn’t really belong, like the adolescent Francesca at her boarding school. That said, the spoken word poetry was clearly the artistic heart of this project, and it provoked images and emotions which stirred and shone in my mind.
How To Survive A Post-Truth Apocalypse didn’t leave me feeling any better equipped to deal with a world of fake news, or even sure whether lies are a good or bad thing (good? I think? Sometimes? Depends if you’re Hitler or going on a first date?), but it provided me with some gorgeous mental and visual imagery, and over an hour of gentle entertainment which made me smile but not laugh, sigh but not weep, and check my watch but only once or twice. In a theatre climate which is full of very dense, challenging, depressing, and at times pretentious art, it was nice to see something light, self-aware, and kind-hearted for a change. Believe me.