Edinburgh Fringe 2013
“In an audacious, provocative protest against flagrant global attempts to sexualise and commodify childhood for profit, award-winning artist Kimmings and her niece Taylor, nine, decided to play the global tween machine at its own game. Taylor invented dinosaur-loving, bike riding, tuna pasta-eating, alternative pop star Catherine Bennett, Bryony promised to embody her, do everything that Taylor told her to, and get her famous – like super famous! This is their show: expect heavy weaponry and matching Laura Ashley outfits. For fans of seemingly impossible feats, shouting from rooftops and sticking up for the little folk."
The buzz and excitement was palpable in the line-up to watch the show – audience members were shuffled up uncomfortably close as Pleasance Fringe staff rounded us up, repeatedly telling us the show is sold out, as the queue got longer and louder. The word on the street was that this show was unmissable.
An established performance artist with previous shows exploring her own use of alcohol as well as sexually transmitted diseases Kimmings is no stranger to publicly airing her laundry. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is again an autobiographical piece devised by Kimmings and based on her real life anxieties about finding inspiring role models for her 9 year old niece, who has already started to succumb to a culture that encourages young girls to aspire to be rich, thin, famous and coldly ruthless. Oh and of course sexual beings.
Yup…if you haven’t been around children much in the last decade it may come as a shock to you that the ‘corporations’ are turning their well-researched and very well-funded marketing tactics to an ever younger audience, who gyrate and pelvic thrust and look coquettishly over their shoulders and wear short skirts and yet have no idea really what it is they are emulating…because let’s face it; they are children playing at being grown-ups. And it’s a stomach churningly absolute truth of our time. Kimmings creates on stage the sense that when she realised this – and looked at her ‘fawn-like’ niece in front of her, Bambi like in her uncertain tottering innocent explorations of the world around her – it was like a hostile alien space ship suddenly crashed into her back garden, shattering everything she ever knew or believed. This performance tells the story, with Kimmings and her niece playing themselves, taking us on a vividly personal journey.
This piece has a depth to it that goes beyond superficial public/private confessions, expressing an inspiring and haunting honesty that resonates deeply with the viewer. Although the subject matter of the sexualisation of childhood and the dramatic increase in the use of technology tunes into the Zeitgeist, the issues manifest in this piece explore archetypal human experiences of the loss of innocence and the grief of this change. It also explores issues of power and dominance and the objectification and sexualisation of women. It articulates the deep knawing anxiety of our time…that we are all on the cusp of something big, and frightening that we as a species have created, and will never be able to undo. But even more archetypal is that is represents the price of human consciousness.
The metaphors of Eve’s ‘apple’ run throughout. A particularly brilliant and funny scene, lightening the mood a little, was the feeding of the regurgitated apple to her niece – both symbolising the feeling of nurturing and feeding her young, but also feeding her regurgitated ‘knowledge’, which would ultimately banish her from the garden of Eden – cleverly symbolising to us the responsibility Kimmings feels herself as a woman, to role model and pass on meaningful knowledge. She ‘gouges her nieces eyes out with the concentration and calmly insane determination recognisable to us as a desperate attempt to take back control, even if the act is even more mad than what she is trying to protect her from. Kimmings manages to constantly surprise us with a new mirror of our predictable human responses. When they change into their medieval armour – in a skin tingling build up – teaching her niece to ‘fight’, letting out all her anger and frustration at the world then finally collapsing, exhausted…she takes us with her on this emotional journey…showing us how this level of fighting and anger just simply isn’t sustainable…that this kind of fighting is too head on and will never work. What she finally invokes instead is a form of ‘moral technique’, where they try to develop something that steps neatly into a phenomenon that already exists, rather than proposing an unachievable, isolating counter culture. Enter Catherine Bennett – our Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model…a creation so heart breakingly sweet that it triggers a grief response as the innocence of this role model, created by the niece, brings into sharp focus who the role models really are and what they are ‘selling’.
Kimmings captures perfectly the reaction of many on recognition of the loss of innocence,….It’s quite simple really, if we protect our children…blind them to the horrors…cover their ears….keep them innocent and safe….then we can pretend all this isn’t happening…we can assuage our guilt of the world we have created….but as Taylor stands there…eyes ‘gauged’ out…ear defenders on….she whispers the prophecy to us…that its already too late…the ‘information’ is already everywhere, and there’s nothing we can do about it…
Kimmings seemed genuinely emotional towards the end of the performance – what had been held all the way through as a professional performance, suddenly and touchingly melted away and we saw her naked, standing there, lost and child like herself – feeling the helplessness and the sadness of accepting what she couldn’t change. When her niece Taylor did her ‘tween’ dancing at end – we could feel the aching sadness from Kimmings. Just some simple looks and gestures communicated to the audience, without her niece seeing, that she knew, that her niece had no understanding what she had already lost. We feel Kimmings’ sense of hopelessness against the huge beast of 6 million pounds of marketing and the ‘tween culture’, despite her valiant attempts to create a ‘likeable credible superstar role model’. I think ultimately this play becomes less about ‘the fight’, and more about the need to love by letting go and surrendering to what we can’t change.
I was interested to see what the audience looked like as they came out, one woman hugged the 9 year old niece with emotion, men young and old wiped away tears, one woman went off quietly in a corner trying to stifle her sobs, some women were chattering excitedly and animatedly about the issues brought up. Some people had faces looking dazed and shaken, some tearful. One person said that it was “not preachy” even though she thought it might be, someone else could only say “Oh my god”.
What makes this show outstanding has less to do with technical theatrical and performance devices, although these were multifarious, and inventive, and more to do with the overall aesthetic experience created for the audience. You can’t really review this as theatre – but equally the theatrical devices used were utterly superb, rich in imagery, subtly played, but very very clear. This show is transient…its temporary nature was acutely felt; this 9 year old will grow up, and in today’s culture alarmingly fast. They won’t ever be able to repeat this performance in its current context.
Kimmings’ performance qualities on stage, blurring the boundaries between theatricality and open dialogue and real life, are breath taking. She has created a body of work, which adds something of real value to both the methodology of art/theatre as well as contemporary dialogues around cultural issues of childhood, technology and society. In my opinion this performance illustrated to me a model of what ‘Art’ was created to do. This is the potential of theatre, to mirror, to challenge, to articulate but most importantly to create an aesthetic experience for the audience that connects them to something on a very human as well as visceral level.