On Friday 13thof March 2015, Battersea Arts Centre went up in flames. The theatre crumbled and the hub of art, culture and a place theatre-makers could call home was engulfed by the fire.
That same year, performance artist Bryony Kimmings was also engulfed by flames. When her baby son fell ill, her relationship fell apart and her mental health declined, Bryony plummeted into a dark place. Totally consumed by trauma, she didn’t think she’d ever pull herself out of that place. But she did, and that’s what she talks about in her latest bold and honest one-woman show – I’m a Phoenix, Bitch.
In her provocative, autobiographical performance where she lays herself and the complexity of her emotions bare on stage, it’s a remarkable 80 minutes of powerful and essential theatre. Inside the Grand Hall of the Battersea Arts Centre, the walls are still crumbling and the paint torn away, but the beauty of Battersea Arts Centre is still there underneath it’s scars. It’s almost as if Bryony’s trauma mirrored the Battersea Arts Centre’s, and slowly they are being rebuilt again in unison, which is what makes this performance such a profound experience.
In the show, Bryony explains how a way to manage trauma is to go back through the narrative of what you’ve been through and make sense of it, and that is exactly what she does on stage. Taking us back to young Bryony in her sparkly ASOS dress and free flowing hair, she slowly takes on the obstacles life is constantly throwing at her and reveals a vulnerability. Moving into her dream cottage with her boyfriend and finally getting the life she dreamed of, after the birth of her son her life suddenly halted.
“Stories protect us from chaos,” Bryony tells the audience. She uses her own narrative to tell a story that I’m sure every single member of the audience resonates with. The first Bryony Kimmings production I saw was A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer and it’s a piece of theatre I still think about to this day and this production maintains the raw honesty that makes Kimmings such an engaging performer.
During the traumatic time, Bryony’s mother offered words of advice and this is displayed throughout the show in the form of voice recordings. When she reaches a different stage of her pain, she plays a clip from her mother who is reflecting on the situation and trying to understand why Bryony is processing things the way she is. Her mother is wise, understanding and patient. You can tell she is strong, really strong, especially when she talks to Bryony about her relationship with men. Her mother’s voice cracking as she describes the moment her husband (Bryony’s dad) left them, and trying to come to some conclusion as to why Bryony feels like she has to so desperately need the men in her life.
Bryony’s mother sat next to me in the theatre, just metres away from Bryony as she unravelled her life on stage. Breaking that glass on her emotions and pouring herself out on stage, I felt their connection and it made the performance even more real, because it was happening right there in front of me.
Alongside Bryony’s captivating storytelling, her use of technology gives the production another dimension. It’s literally as if we are taken into her mind as we find ourselves trapped inside her head with her. The impressive lighting, projections and video added to the atmosphere that transported you into Bryony’s world.
One thing that really stuck with me was when Bryony talks of when her son Frank stopped having seizures and life returned to ‘normal’. Everyone went back to their daily lives and everyone stopped talking about it. “But I wanted to keep talking about it,” Bryony says. Just because she stopped living through the trauma didn’t mean it suddenly stopped having an effect on her, she was still living through all the pain she had gone through and that is when she had to start building herself back up on her own. This is a really poignant moment in the show, where she starts lifting weights that gradually gets heavier and whilst telling herself, “I am strong.” That sense of hope she conjures up as she rebuilds her strength is incredibly moving to watch.
My heart ached during this show, maybe because sometimes it felt like looking in a mirror but maybe because it proved just how resilient as humans we are, and have to be. I am constantly overwhelmed by the power of theatre and Bryony Kimmings seems to make you feel everything you need to feel and more. Her authenticity and warmth forms an indescribable connection with the audience and you really do go on that emotional journey with her.
It’s cathartic, it’s real and it’s everything we want to say in life but can’t.
Switching from dialogue to song, to movement to just Bryony herself talking from the heart, it’s messy, and that’s what theatre should be. Life is messy and unpredictable and theatre should reflect that. I’m A Phoenix Bitch is an affecting, empowering and courageous production, Bryony completely commits to giving every bit of herself to the audience, proving her to be one of the greatest performance artists of our time.
On at Battersea Arts Centre until the 20th of October, tickets and information can be found online here.
Photo credit: Rosie Powel