Edinburgh Fringe 2010
An extraordinary performance of an extraordinary life. On paper it sounds like it could be the most awful of fringe self-indulgences. Instead it is an astonishingly uplifting account of survival and rebirth, told by Gemskii who is not just a highly skilled performer but a rare, warm and open spirit.
A physical theatre one woman show – "the inspirational journey of the performer’s own struggle to survive encounters with abuse, drugs, criminality, homelessness, rape, self-harm, violence, tragic death and heartbreak" – sounds like the sort of thing I’d rather slash my own eyeballs than see on the fringe.
But while flyering at the Fringe Box Office, I was given a flyer by Gemskii for her own life-story show, Transformation, and there was something about the presence of the performer off-stage that suggested this might actually be rather good. Having at last seen her show, in the middle of the final week, I now regret not going earlier in the festival and urge you to do your life a favour and catch Transformation if you possibly can during its last few days.
Sometimes theatre entertains. Sometimes it informs. Sometimes it can even make you think or feel differently about something for a little while. Sometimes a piece of theatre can change how you see theatre itself. But only very occasionally does a piece of theatre have the potential to change your life. It may not affect everyone in this way, but Gemskii’s astonishing performance of her shocking life story will, for some, help to enable a positive life transformation, and it deserves to reach a much larger audience.
Gemskii herself hands out the programmes as we enter the tiny space, and she tells us two things before the show starts: 1, we can laugh and 2, she has injured herself so she might have to stop, but if she stops she will carry on. She is instantly in command and yet not commanding. She has a confident half-smile, a twinkle in her eye and she radiates a warm energy and openness which instantly puts the audience at their ease.
And then she’s off, telling her incredible life story at speed, but never rushed, a continuous stream of words and movement, with clarity and poetry in both, totally in the zone, but still relaxed enough to ad-lib with the audience.
And what a story. The litany of sexual and physical abuse she has lived through, self-inflicted as much as suffered at the hands of lovers and other assailants, seems almost unbelievable and yet I believed every word. Either Gemskii is the most extraordinary actress I have ever seen or it is a remarkable testament to the will to survive of the human spirit that she is here to tell her true tale.
But it’s not just that she can tell her tale, that I am applauding. It is the way she tells it. Yes she is undoubtedly a very skilled performer, but what is so amazing, what lingers in the mind and what makes this show so very special is that she tells her story without ever dwelling on the horror or hinting at self-pity even for a nano-second. And while the accumulation of sufferings she details are harrowing – more truly harrowing than many other celebratedly harrowing shows on the fringe – the audience are not made to suffer or ever asked to feel pity.
When an artist creates a performance out of the drama of their own lives there is a fine line between self-indulgence and self-expression. But any artist who listens to their critics and so shies away from self-indulgence will never achieve true self-expression. When an artist so triumphantly expresses their spirit as Gemskii does, we who witness are given a gift, a vision of untapped potential in ourselves. I left the theatre feeling ever so slightly ashamed at my own tendency to feel sorry for myself, and inspired and empowered to face any difficulty in my way.
An hour of Transformation is a spiritually uplifting hour very well spent in the company of the ad libbing, body flipping, wise cracking, finger snapping, drug kicking, rape beating, ever giving, spirit lifting, cool, fizzing, Gemskii!