Theatre Review: Showmanism

Words by Melissa Blease
Ustinov Studio (Theatre Royal Bath) until 10 December

Theatre: a collaborative form of performing art in which live performers  present the experience of real or imagined events before a live audience in a specific place designed for that purpose. A place for artists to communicate experience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance, using stagecraft to enhance the physicality, presence, emotion and immediacy of that experience. A forum to promote social discourse, dialogue and potential social change. A cultural phenomenon. An opportunity for a human being to share, with other human beings, the sense of what it is to be human being. Or, perhaps, simply a great night out?

Actor, performer and, perhaps, shamanic showman Dickie Beau’s ¡SHOWMANISM! – the last programmed work in Deborah Warner’s first season at the Ustinov – is all of those things and way, way much more. It’s beautiful, and funny, and sad. It’s eloquent and affecting; fervent, sensual and tender; poignant, and potent and powerful. It’s not just unlikely that you’ve ever seen anything like it before – you definitely never have. 

There is an oft-bandied around maxim, credited to all manner of artists, that goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. To me, writing about iSHOWMANISM! feels like attempting to create a perfume that smells of the sky, or make a cake that tastes like a cartoon character… or bring an almost other-worldly experience firmly back down to earth, where it doesn’t belong. But then again, iSHOWMANISM! very much belongs here, on earth, with us; it’s for, about and is all of us – and it’s totally, utterly phenomenal.

You’ve never seen anything like ¡SHOWMANISM! before – and it’s unlikely that you ever will again; a phenomenal work of art indeed. 

Above: Dickie Beau in ¡SHOWMANISM! | Image credit: Sarah Ainslie

The concept: Beau interviewed theatre artists, lecturers, impressionists and actors including Ian McKellen, Fiona Shaw, Mimi Denissi, Joe E Jeffreys and master voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg, discussing the fundamental concepts of performance and recording their anecdotes. He’s used these lively, often candid conversations to create an aural patchwork quilt that he wraps around his audience, directly lip-synching the artist’s words throughout a performance-story that takes us from the foundations and development of language itself to… well, to where we’re at today. And where are we at? We are all – not just Beau, and not just his interview subjects – a combination of numerous, often heterogeneous influences that combine to create a collection of souls doing what we do and trying our best to be who we are, all of us watching, all of us listening, all the time; all the world’s a stage, and man and women merely players.

Oh of course we hear from (and about) Shakespeare! And Beckett, and a therapist, and a drag queen performance artist, and theatre critic Rupert Christiansen sharing his forthright opinion on what a parasitic waste of time theatre critics are (thanks, Rupert) and more.  We never, however, hear directly from Beau; he’s the medium that channels the message, the messenger that securely delivers a mandate of vast significance to all of us, most of his time wearing just a pair of white underpants (and “very nice underpants” they are too, according to Ian McKellen) occasionally supplemented by a flowing robe and/or a pair of dazzling white platform boots, occasionally aided and abetted by props including Yorick’s scull, or an orange from an tree growing in a wheelbarrow, or a dangling conch used as a telephone, or a spade, or space helmet, or a sword, or a ladder, or a chair precariously attached to a rung high up on that ladder from which our tour guide for the evening appears to float above the stage. 

Video screens flicker, a vintage tape recorder spools, a wash of hazy lighting bathes the stage in a wash of hazy light. And all the time, Beau himself flickers and spools and bathes us in light: chameleon, corinthian and caricature, offering us a lifetime of previously unexplored experience in 100 minutes of previously unexplored theatrical transubstantiation. 

You’ve never seen anything like ¡SHOWMANISM! before – and it’s unlikely that you ever will again; a phenomenal work of art indeed.