Brighton Year-Round 2020
A cancer specialist once said that all cancers start from ‘one rogue cell’. One cell alone, of all the billions we are made of, begins to reproduce uncontrollably, departing from its normal bodily function and multiplying furiously to develop cancerous tissues that could eventually kill the body’s owner.
It’s that sense of ‘going rogue’ that’s the theme of ‘Rebel Boob’ – the idea that a woman’s breasts, evolved to provide nourishment for her offspring, along with sexual pleasure; can turn against her, and end up destroying her life instead of enhancing it.
All the audience members – the men as well as the women – watching ‘Rebel Boob’ know what breast cancer is; some may have developed it, or fear developing it in the future; others may have watched their friends or their partners suffer from it. But in the end; the personal, lived, experience is different for everyone, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it.
Angela El-Zeind was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. After her treatment and recovery, Angela’s way of coming to terms with the experience was to try to show the rest of us, female and male, what it’s like to be in that situation. Not just her own feelings, of course, that would be too narrow; El-Zeind interviewed a number of women who’d suffered the disease, and gave their words and stories to a small group of actors to perform verbatim.
Just five women, seated on a set of black boxes ranged across the stage before coming forward one by one into the light to give us a taste of someone’s experience, and then returning to sit with her sisters. A large screen behind them showed visuals – moving patterns mostly, completely abstract but powerfully evocative of biological forms, cells perhaps, moving and multiplying. There was sound too: music, but also short clips of women being interviewed, and sometimes the hollow sound of what felt like voices from the women’s own memories – or nightmares.
Doctor’s voice – “Those are cancer cells …”
Five women, giving us the experience of many. It always seems to start the same way – unexpected. “I was forty three, there was no history of breast cancer in my family. I was taking a shower, just doing the usual routine, and I found a lump on my right breast” . . . “He pulled out the needle and said ‘We’re going to need to see you again’. I burst into tears at that point. and thought ‘Oh Fuck. That’s not what I wanted. Oh fuck’.”
We’ve all heard or read about the initial shock of a cancer diagnosis, but Andrea Kelly’s performance gave us an unforgettable sense of the reality of it – the floor falling away beneath her feet, a sudden realisation that life isn’t going to be the same any more. Chess Dillon-Reams portrayed it well – “The doctor, a woman doctor, called me in the room, and without any kindness or anything just said. ‘You have cancer’. You know how they describe in books that the room starts spinning? At that point, that’s how I felt. I suddenly saw the room spinning. And I couldn’t hear the voice. That’s exactly what happened to me. She was talking to me and I remember I lay my head on the wall. And I was catching one word every 10 words or every 20 words.” Later, we got anger. “I was so angry. So angry. That this was happening, and not in a ‘Why Me?’ way. Just in a ‘Fuck You Universe!’ What the fuck do you think you’re doing to me and my children? “
Anger is a powerful way of dealing with trauma, but Angela El-Zeid gave us another woman’s way of coping. “After I was diagnosed with a faulty gene, my mother got tested too. I think she feels really guilty for passing the gene on to me. I tell her that she passed on a lot of other good genes too.”
Supporting her mother, but also supporting herself; refusing to be defined simply by her disease. Because most women don’t embark on this journey in isolation, they have family around them. Aurea Williamson portrayed a woman whose husband – “was so incredibly strong. I think it can go one way or the other, he really stepped up to the mark and he learnt not to try and fix things and when I was having my three weekly sobs he’d just be there, I’d just need someone to listen and not to say anything, you know, to hear me, just so I could feel heard and understood.”
But Chess Dillon-Reams showed us that it can be the other way. ” My partner doesn’t want to touch my scar, where my nipple used to be. Or look at me naked. He looks away when I undress. I’ve thought about getting a tattoo, to, you know, make it look a bit better.”
Along with the physical effects of the illness and the treatment, there are also the psychological repercussions. “I’ve got hideous amounts of guilt, just hideous amounts. Guilt that I was a burden, guilt that your loved ones have to watch you get sick, guilt that you think you’re going to die, or the guilt that you are going to die and your parents have to watch you go through that…” As Hermione Purvis spoke these lines she slumped her body sideways, as if weighed down by the immensity of it all, but Chess Dillon-Reams was there to catch her, support her, and lower her gently to a comfortable position lying on the floor. Dillon-Reams is a very accomplished dancer as well as an actor, and the elegant fluidity of her movements (beautifully choreographed by Katie Dale-Everett) added an extra background dimension of emotion to a number of the women’s monologues.
If there’s an underlying theme to ‘Rebel Boob’ – it’s that there is no single response to breast cancer. Everyone travels her own journey. Near the end, Angela El-Zeid gave us one woman’s experience (her own?) – she’d lost her hair as a result of the chemotherapy, but decided to leave her scarf behind and go out bald. “As I walked on the beach, a woman on a bicycle passed me by. She looked directly at me and raised her fist in the gesture of solidarity … sometimes all it takes is that complete stranger who once stood where you are now, to give you the strength to hope.” Angela raised her own fist as she continued “I pledge allegiance to you, my bosom buddies; my bald eagle cronies; my breast friends; my flat sisters; my areola allies, my titillating comrades; my nippleless amazon warriors; my fellow rebel boobs! We are the club that no-one wants to join, and I pledge allegiance to you all.”
Powerful stuff – but as the light faded, another woman came forward with a different agenda – “What if I don’t want this anymore? What if I just want to move on and not think about it again? Breast cancer shaped me, but I don’t want to let it define me. Not anymore.”
No single response. Just five very talented women providing us with a kaleidoscopic vision of the experiences of millions. It was a remarkable performance – full of hope as well as despair, and joy as well as suffering. The Old Market audience responded with a standing ovation at the finish. This reviewer left feeling emotionally battered, drained, humbled – but also uplifted by this glimpse the power of women’s spirit and resilience.
I shall not forget this performance for a long time.