A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

Theatre, Drama
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Photograph: Mark Douet
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Photograph: Mark Douet
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Photograph: Mark Douet

Bryony Kimmings returns to Australia with a musical about the other C-word

The term ‘theatre-maker’ seems like a wanky way of saying playwright, until you see the work of Bryony Kimmings and it fits like a glove. Her work, which Melbourne audiences have had a few chances to see over the years, is meticulously constructed and thematically rich, but isn’t written from scratch in the traditional sense. It’s rather built up or grown, like a community garden or urban planning project. While she almost always takes herself as a starting point, she has a way of including the audience in the act of creation, and the results are strangely therapeutic and celebratory.

Her latest show, the brilliantly named A Pacifists’ Guide to the War on Cancer, is slightly different from her earlier work, but only superficially. Kimmings doesn’t have cancer, for a start, and large chunks of the piece are taken up with her agonising over her suitability to take on such a devastating subject. Of course, as she herself acknowledges, all of us are touched by the disease in some way or other; no on is, or can ever be, immune to its tentacled reach. The major difference, however, is a formal one: it’s a musical.

The show opens with a brief autobiographical precis, a quick catch up for those unfamiliar with her working methods, and then we are straight into a scene with Kimmings pitching various ideas to English theatre outfit Complicité. They reject them all, until she blurts out the word cancer, and they are hooked. Kimmings’ exhaustive research – her devouring of books on the subject, crappy disease-of-the-week movies, and reams of the kind of hideous self-help pap you find in any local bookstore – is folded into the show, as is verbatim interviews with cancer patients. It’s a variety of meta-theatricality that would be painful in other hands, but here it feels acerbic and knowing. It’s not until we are introduced to cancer sufferer Lara Veitch, however, that shit gets real, and the piece starts to dig deeper.

Lara’s story is extraordinary – so dire we wonder how she can possibly be sharing it with us in person – and Kimmings is so moved by her that the two become solid friends. There’s absolutely nothing self-conscious or arch about the way this friendship is depicted, and the act of watching two young women face the horrors of death with unblinking honesty is profoundly moving. When Kimmings falls pregnant for the first time in the same period as Lara falls ill for the umpteenth time, when “I had life growing in me and she had death growing in her”, the relationship takes a strained and awkward turn. It won’t be until Kimmings experiences her own unspeakable horrors that the two women will be able to reconcile and forge ahead with the creation of the show.

It all sounds impossibly grim and yet, without ever trivialising or simplifying the cancer experience, the show is actually very funny and life-affirming. The “guide” the show is formulating is as much for the friends and family of cancer sufferers as for anyone going through it themselves, and it’s remarkably candid about the ways people can help or hinder a person’s recovery. It’s very pointed about the way our society treats women in particular who have cancer, and the ludicrously masculine “battle imagery” that surrounds the disease. You’ll find yourself tripping up over the clichés around “courage” and “inspiration” and even the idea of “fighting an illness” for days afterwards.

The musical numbers are the main weakness in a show that doesn’t seem to need them. There are some half-hearted attempts to call various musical forms to life – there’s a deliberate reference to The Supremes at one point – but the songs don’t advance any of the ideas very far and could be jettisoned entirely with no loss of vitality. The whole thing takes a little time to solidify, and it’s curious that the single most theatrically intense moment isn’t actually about cancer at all but about the trauma of motherhood, but eventually A Pacifists’ Guide to the War on Cancer resolves into a kind of communal grief session that is notable for its lack of mawkishness as much as its emotional power. Throughout the piece, Kimmings uses the theatre itself as a metaphor for the body, and the suggestion is that it’s in our shared spaces that this battle needs to take place. Now that’s a war we can all join.

By: Tim Byrne

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