Bury the Hatchet, Out of the Forest Theatre @ The Hope Theatre, Islington

24 July – 11 August

Written by Sasha Wilson, further devised by the company
Cast: Joseph Harrison, David Leopold and Sasha Wilson
Design: David Spence
Lighting Design: Will Alder
Produced by Joseph Cullen, Sarah Divall and Claire Gilbert for Out of the Forest Theatre

Photo Credits: Reg Madison/Liam Bessell

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Bury the Hatchet is a re-visiting of the famous Lizzie Borden story, performed in the black-box studio of The Hope Theatre, Islington. Upon entering we find Sasha Wilson, the actor who plays Lizzie and herself as the playwright, kneeling on the floor in a lace black dress (wearing matching Etsy style earrings of Lizzie Borden) at the centre of radiating family portraits splattered with red blood. Sasha copies details from a hefty history tome into a notebook, presumably crafting the play we’re about to see. Above, a lit hatchet dangles from a rigged loop of rope.  Stringed instruments – a violin, a banjo, etc. – crowd the back of the stage. A resonant whistle fills the space as Joseph Harrison and David Leopold enter, completing the ensemble cast, and we’re off.

What follows is an investigation of the persevering mystery, nagging happenstance, and odd Victorian social hang-ups that contributed to the peculiar and unresolved case of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of the murder of her father and step-mother by hatchet in 1892. (Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks…etc.)

In the play, Sasha claims that she initially set out to write a historically accurate show. What results is an interesting frisson between Lizzie Borden pop-lore, the dramatisation of primary sources and the beginning of the playwright’s inquiry into both Lizzie’s motivation and her own fascination with the story, set to a gorgeous prairie bluegrass soundtrack.

Sasha’s exploration feels strongest when the playwright reflects on what she finds interesting about the murder and its circumstance – weaving together a possible psychology for Lizzie, before revising her theories with a new set of supporting facts. Her desire to find something else in Lizzie’s motivations, and Lizzie’s relationships with her sister Emma and the family maid Bridget, even if only through supposition, brings new life to the nursery rhyme.

Joseph Harrison and David Leopold had a markedly generous energy and seamlessly led the audience through the thorny mystery, expertly playing a bevvy of supporting characters. The ensemble was silly and charming, the piece defined by a meta-humour that buoyed along the more serious themes, allowing a critique of the original trial, both with facts, fictions and digressions.

The atmosphere was intimate and immersive, aided by a subtle choreographed movement, well-articulated by the actors and magnetic in the space. Within the studio, Will Alder created a moody, oil-painting lighting scape, with wisps of more electric horror, highlighting the ensemble’s striking arrangements (both musical/physical) beneath the ever-hanging hatchet.

The style sang best when it positioned its author as architect of the inquiry. Sasha Wilson is particularly compelling when she filters Lizzie through the lens of her own experience, reflecting on the awakening Lizzie might have felt after her first European tour, or interrogating her own relationship with death. While the details of the crime are teasingly interesting, the question of what is true remains locked in time and I found the pursuit of what might be understood, or re-interpreted from the vantage of now, to be far more engaging.

Overall, the piece was rich and evocative, expertly conjuring the feeling of vaudevillian horror as well as identifying something at the heart of our ongoing fascination with “guilty” true crime celebrities and Lizzie’s relatable, out of time refusal to have less.

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Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell @ Hampstead Theatre

11th – 14th July 2018
Written and Performed by Daisy Campbell

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In Pigspurt’s Daughter, Daisy Campbell marks the 10-year anniversary of her father cult theatre figure Ken Campbell’s death.

At the beginning of the show, Daisy Campbell tells us that she has been putting off sorting through the artefacts of her father’s theatrical legacy for the decade since.

The stage reflects this, boxed shelves display comedy props such as Ken’s joke-shop dick nose and laughing mirror (his cure for depression), posters from his many shows, media quotes, close-ups of his buttocks shaped nose, his notebooks, The Illuminatus Trilogy that he famously adapted, and other texts that have informed his work; a shrine-cum-studio-cum-storage unit amongst which Daisy performs her first one-woman show.

Daisy invokes her father’s legacy as a comedic genius and experimental theatre-maker, telling his stories; performing a nasally Ken Campbell instantly recognisable to the audience. Daisy’s childhood was spent watching her father’s one-man shows, hanging out in the Hackney Marshes where they lived on their boat The Snark, and attending Robert Mckee’s Story Structure Course. Daisy has used this education to architect a memoir fitting of a master storyteller.

Daisy Campbell is a spell-binding performer – confident, charismatic and enticing as she weaves together seemingly disparate events and ideas into a swirling tapestry of meaning (and mycelium). Early in the show Daisy relates the findings of the split-self experiments of neuroscientist Gazzaniga, the contents of which she encountered in an old documentary narrated by her father. Daisy explains that there is a gap where the self should be and what in fact inhabits that gap, according to Gazzaniga, is our interpreter, or as Daisy prefers to put it, her storyteller. The storyteller’s job is to make sense of the world, creating the illusion of meaning and purpose, only masquerading as the Self. As Robert Mckee puts it, the story exists in The Gap between expectation and what’s really happening. Incidentally, Mckee thought Ken Campbell was the greatest storyteller he ever met.

Daisy becomes suspect of her own storyteller and its “soap-opera sensibilities”, and decides to feed it a glut of story set-ups, mystifying it by handing out tarot cards to friends without explanation or the possibility of pay-off, challenging the storyteller’s ability to produce meaning, and so in over-drive, it finds meaning in everything. Daisy reports how things get weird when you mess with your storyteller, but this is just the beginning as Daisy begins to see and find Gaps everywhere.

Through a series of semi-serendipitous events, threaded together like the hyphae of the recurring image of the mycelium, Daisy is possessed by her father’s demonic character Pigspurt, (from his Evening Standard Critic’s Choice Best Comedy awarded show at the National Theatre of the same name) through an accident of gastromancy, a rectal invocation of dead spirits. (In the original NT production of Pigspurt, the demon is finally exorcised when Ken finds the female buttocks that matches the shape of his nose.)

Her father as Pigspurt takes over the voice of her storyteller, making a deal with Daisy that she can use Ken’s old stories if she promises to drive the story to the end of the line, to find Robert Mckee’s Negation of the Negation, and so to go farther than her father. So naturally, Daisy begins seeking the solution to exorcise Pigspurt, to get her father out of her arse so she can then figuratively get out from inside his arse and locate her missing Self. Daisy references the disappointment she was to Ken for not becoming a Russian gymnast or someone who whazzes particles together at CERN in Switzerland.

If the ideas in the show seem dense, complex and the allusions sometimes lofty, they are. But Daisy Campbell is a compelling, warm guide through these entwined ideas, inventing the perfect theatrical vessel to honour her father, and the worldview and stories she inherited from him. And she’s just so outrageously funny doing it, her charm, irresistible; on the knife-edge between child-like and preternaturally canny.

The play crept up on themes of grief, loss and love without a hint of the performative pain that sometimes rides shotgun to these topics, addressing instead the feeling that is revealed by these experiences, of a collapsing narrative; and the sensation of a Gap where your Self should be.

And while you might be tempted to reduce the piece to its thematic jus like I have just done, the strength of the work lies in its refusal to be simplified. The power of the story is in its swirling associations and circuitous exploration of the Gap and the Self, complicating the need for definition with its form, artfully hijacking narrative to ultimately discredit it.

Daisy both questions the compulsion to create meaning and fill “the Gap” while also enriching the autobiographical show with the many fictions that were the foundation of Ken and Daisy’s relationship. While it’s very clever, it’s also just full of really entertaining, outlandish micro-stories and robust comedy.

Daisy does provide Act 3 pay-offs, the Negation of the Negation turns out to be something hilarious and disturbing, performed in Ken’s old fat-suit. The subsequent resolution is so Hollywood and comparatively clichéd within the overall show, that fresh surprise is found in the obviousness of its revelation; a tongue-in-cheek ending provided after Daisy has spent the last 2 hours challenging our desire for a recognisable narrative arc (re:protuberance). As Daisy confirms in conversation with her dead father, she made narrative the antagonist. Her way of seeing the world, a hallucinogenic.

The structure may at some points feel convoluted, but I think this show is comedic, meticulously crafted genius and a joyful ride from start to finish. You don’t need to be familiar with Ken Campbell’s work, Daisy does a fantastic job of bringing the man to life in front of you, and produces a show that services the idea of him as a beloved public figure while still illuminating a relationship, if peculiar, between a child and parent who was larger than life, and the need to live up to and beyond them.

As Ken Campbell used to say, “Critics never tell the truth, namely that in actual fact it’s all bollocks”. As I couldn’t resist such an easy feed, this show is hilarious, human, esoteric, relatable, dizzying, exceptional bollocks.

31 August        The British Library, London

9 September   Slung Low’s The Hub, Leeds

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