By Regan Baker
I’ve been submersed in the world of film and theatre for the better part of twenty years now and even as a little kid going to the Out of the Box Children’s Festival, I have known of the ideology of theatre being used as a form of self-expression and healing. It was posited all the way back in 1927 by Nikolai Evreinov that, “Theatre is a human impulse necessary to healthy living. Dramatherapy recognises that a part of this need and impulse can be used in the maintenance of health and in dealing with emotional and psychological problems.”
Fast forward to the year 2015 when internationally acclaimed writer, performer and activist Bryony Kimmings’ life turned in the absolute worst way she could imagine, and it looked as though there was no escape from her psychological breakdown. That is, until she went back to her roots and started creating deeply personal theatre as a way of coping with (and overcoming) the intense few years she had just endured. Introducing, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch; the heart-stopping true story of Kimmings' battle with heartbreak, psychological meltdown, a near-death experience and the near loss of her infant son who suffered upwards of 300 seizures a day. This is an incredibly intense story that recalls Kimmings' breakdown and how she pulled herself out of the worst years of her life by continually telling herself, I am strong, I can do this. It’s a show not to be taken lightly, and in my opinion, it’s slightly misleading in its advertising here. The show is positioned as being a comedic feminist musical, and while my partner and I did giggle on the odd occasion, there isn’t really anything funny about the trauma Kimmings experienced, or the way she retells her story. Calling it a musical is also a bit of a stretch, as in a similar vein to two wrongs don’t make a right… then three songs don’t make a musical.
To be short, my partner and I did not enjoy ourselves. In fairness to Kimmings though, this could be a result of the expectations we had formed from the Brisbane Festival website and how it described the show, or the fact we have never heard of, or seen her works before. We went in expecting to laugh, and while we knew the content of the performance was going to be deeply personal, were expecting it to be retold with humour in a number of musical bangers. We were instead hit with an immersed, and mostly dead-silent theatre as Kimmings explored her darkly emotional psyche as she told stories of her inner demons that left her nearly drowning at the bottom of a creek.
The audience in which we shared tonight’s performance did not agree with our point of view as evidenced by the resounding standing ovation at the conclusion of the show. While Gemma and I are only in our mid-twenties, the vast majority of the audience were a fair bit older and had likely seen Kimmings works before (based on the chatter we overheard). And to be completely objective, I can kind of see why.
Kimmings story is deeply traumatic and we as humans are naturally drawn to stories of drama, resilience and triumph. We love a redemption story, we love a strong female character, and we love a story about overcoming incredibly harsh odds. There is a powerful message in I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, and Kimmings does a remarkable job of translating her trauma into performance art that breathes hope into those that watch it.
The staging of Kimmings performance, integrated with unique lighting and projection techniques were unlike anything I have seen on stage before. Kimmings has miniature ‘sets’ built across the stage and using a range of different cameras; films, and projects her story on a giant backdrop. It was a surprisingly unique way of retelling a story and creating an atmosphere that replicated her dark and traumatised state of mind.
Story aside, Kimmings is a fantastic performer. She embodied the different stages of her breakdown with such perfection that you could easily see the pain behind her eyes as the events unfolded. She acted well, sung even better and held the audience in her immersive storytelling.
From an objective point of view, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, was powerful theatre and for those that are into immensely personal, deep, dark and quite often – weird, theatre, then this is definitely a show for you. If you are like me however, and have never seen Kimmings work before – be prepared. This isn’t like any show I’ve seen before and it didn’t resonate with the type of theatre that I am into but could definitely be enjoyed if you go in with an open mind.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.