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This musical about cancer smashes through the uncomfortable questions

Written by
Maxim Boon

Successfully transcribing the trauma of cancer to the glitzy escapism of musical theatre may not seem like an achievable goal. Unless of course it’s in the hands of British theatre mavericks Complicite. This fiercely original company has spent the past three decades making performances that are at once boundary-busting and accessible. 

In The EncounterComplicite’s last venture to Australia in 2017, audiences were transported on a sonic safari into the heart of the Amazon rainforest using just a microphone-packed mannequin head, a suite of improvised Foley props, a solitary performer and an awful lot of headphones. And yet, for all this production’s deceptive simplicity, the true story of photographer Loren McIntyre’s near-fatal 1969 trek into the remote Javari Valley was vividly conjured with a power far exceeding the sum of its parts.

Theatre as innovative and unexpected as this is rare. So when an artist emerged with a similar aptitude for fusing the experimental with the engaging, Complicite was quick to forge a collaboration. Performance artist Bryony Kimmings boasts a fine pedigree creating work wrestling with provocative subjects, from the commodifying of female sexuality, to the normalisation of alcohol abuse, and even the awkward etiquette of talking about STIs. But until her partnership with Complicite, her work had almost exclusively drawn on her own personal experiences. 

For A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer, it would be the experience of Complicite’s commissioning producer Judith Dimant, and her battle with the disease, that would provide the catalyst for the show. The result is a subversive and surprisingly funny musical revue, exploring the ways the healthy communicate with the sick, and the militarised vocabulary that patients are often expected to adopt. 

“It’s an attempt to make a guide, but whether that’s even possible or not is actually the most important question we ask,” says Kirsty Housley, the production’s co-director who was also part of the team who created The Encounter. 

“Most people’s experiences aren’t black and white: you’re not ill and then better, there’s not a clear line between sickness and recovery. There’s a quote from Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor that says, ‘Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’ The first time I met Bryony she spoke about that quote and it really does resonate throughout the piece, because so many of the systems created to deal with cancer have been created by people who aren’t living with it.”

Photograph: Mark Douet

To develop the script, Kimmings spent months interviewing cancer sufferers and attending their treatments to discover first-hand the reality of living with the disease. As Housley explains, seeing the complex humanity of cancer patients, and the unsentimental truth of their experiences, led the production to its unlikely medium. “You can be very big with musical theatre. You don’t have to stick to the boundaries of realism, and that offers you other ways of expressing extremes of emotion in a way that connects rather than confronts,” she shares. “It also let us examine something interesting about the artifice of that particular style of performance. When someone can spontaneously start singing and dancing, that felt like it sat quite radically against where we always knew the show would end, which is with as little artifice as possible. 

“There’s something so powerful about that journey. It’s almost the opposite of the Hollywood version that most people are familiar with, where there’s something noble or beautiful or dignified about dying. It felt very important to resist some of the pressure to create something that was emotionally simple in that way. It’s actually quite a narrow lens through which to look at storytelling; it can be quite filmic, seemingly realistic, but it’s a crude psychological realism that’s not at all representative. That's just not the way the world is.”

The version of the production headed to Australia has undergone a major evolution since its first iteration premiered in 2016. The narrative has been refocused to include the insights the creative team acquired during the show’s original development, and the all-female cast has been streamlined from 18 actors to just six. Perhaps most significantly, Kimmings is now performing in the show – something she had previously resisted due to her lack of first-hand experience. However, during the show’s creation, Kimmings’ son Frank became seriously ill, revealing a deeply personal understanding of her own dual citizenship in the kingdoms of the sick and the well. 

But as much as the production hopes to shine a sobering light on the complexity and conflict of illness, it approaches this material with great empathy and a necessary undercurrent of humour. These elements of comedy are about creating a nurturing space for the audience, Housley says. “People absolutely need it, and when those laughs come, it’s like bursting a balloon. There's a tension in the room and you need to let people exhale. They need to know that they’re allowed to laugh as much as they’re allowed to cry.”

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer is at the Seymour Centre from March 22 to 29.

March is a massive month for theatre in Sydney. See our hit-list for the best shows.

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