Bryony Kimmings’s mammoth solo show has visceral impact.
Writer and actor Bryony Kimmings. Image: The Other Richard.
Performance artist Bryony Kimmings is a self-described narcissist. She makes art out of her own life experiences but assures us, ‘We’re safe. I’ve done lots of therapy and processed it all before turning it into art.’
And indeed, in the beginning of her latest show, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, we feel very safe; Kimmings charms us with her self-effacing humour, witty repartee, strong physicality, and seasoned-performer confidence. Perhaps to further reassure us, she provides a potted history of her previous artistic work, including a show called Sex Idiot in which she tries to track down which one of her lovers has given her an STI, and a show called 7 Days Drunk where she, quite literally, spent seven days inebriated to explore the relationship between the artist, alcohol, and creativity.
So, when she reveals that this show is about the story of her relationship breakup and post-natal depression and psychosis, we feel quietly confident in our capacity to play our part as the appreciative, laughing audience; as long as she plays her ‘part’ as the quick-witted, funny performer.
And she certainly knows how to play this role. Kimmings is one of those artists who is not afraid to ‘go there’ and hang herself out to dry on the altar of entertainment. The show’s first, cringe-inducing song hilariously recounts how she ‘trapped’ her then-partner (actor Tim Grayburn), into ‘staying’ with her by sneaking downstairs the morning after their first sexual encounter to put on make-up and make him a slap-up breakfast.
What we appreciate, but only in retrospect, is that the show’s light-hearted start was her way of inoculating us – the audience – from what would come later. Without giving the story away, it’s fair to say that I’m a Phoenix, Bitch tests the ‘safety’ that Kimmings promised us at the beginning of the show; at times, taking us – and, sometimes, it seemed, even herself – perilously close to danger. But as the show’s title suggests, Kimmings is no victim, and the story of how she rises from the ashes of her own harrowing experience is ultimately empowering.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is an ambitious show. Not only is it a mammoth physical and emotional performance for a solo performer – taking the audience on a rollicking 90-minute journey – but it relies on a plethora of props, sound, lighting, and audio-visual cues. At times, it did feel as though the technicality of the show risked overwhelming the story and I wondered if all the props were necessary. At other times, the use of visual-theatre techniques coalesced in such a magical way that they expressed aspects of her experience which were beyond words. By emulating the advice ‘show don’t tell’ – at one stage Kimmings says, ‘I can’t articulate what happened, but I can show you’ – the impact is visceral.
This is a night at the theatre you won’t soon forget. It’s hard to imagine this story being told in any other format and this production takes full advantage of its chosen artistic medium. Kudos to the design and production team, as it’s clear this one-woman-show was the collaborative effort of many.
But I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is more than a well-crafted performance and, in a last nod to the precarious nature of autobiographical art, Kimmings reminds us that it is not just a story, it’s ‘real life.’ That Kimmings is brave enough to share such a dark chapter of her own life so generously and thoughtfully, is a testament to her personal strength and stunning professionalism.
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch
Co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, Arts Centre Melbourne, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
Writer, Co-director, Performer: Bryony Kimmings
Co-director: Kirsty Housley
Art Director: David Curtis-Ring
Composer: Tom Parkinson
Lighting Designer: Johanne Jensen
Sound Designer: Lewis Gibson
Projection Designer: Will Duke
11-15 September 2019
The Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne (VIC)