Poking a butterfly with a stick – Imogen Stirling’s “#Hypocrisy”

[Author’s note #1: In case it’s not immediately and painfully obvious, I am not a ‘professional’ writer/reviewer. I take no position on whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. There will be no star ratings here. What you’re getting, for the price of however long it takes you to read this piece is one person’s opinion. I am up for debate/discussion. I am happy to be told that, while I felt like ‘this’, you felt like ‘that’. Your thoughts/responses are as valid as mine. ]

[Author’s note #2 – in the interests of full disclosure – I was invited to see this show and I didn’t pay for my ticket.]

#Hypocrisy” is on at the Scottish Poetry Library, until Sunday 12 August. You can buy tickets here.

Imogen Stirling - Image

I have no idea if there are butterflies with wings the colour of Imogen Stirling’s hair but – after seeing her one-woman, spoken-word theatre show “#Hypocrisy”, I was struck by the sense of something emerging, tentatively, as if from a chrysalis.

Played out in broad daylight against a plain, black backcloth – the only ‘theatrical’ elements being the performer’s movement, a handful of props and some limited interaction with her on-stage guitarist – there’s a hesitancy and uncertainty about “#Hypocrisy” which meant that, whilst it wasn’t entirely (a word I’ll come back to latter) without its charms, the show didn’t exactly grab me by the throat.

It was a fluent, proficient performance. Imogen knew how to hold an audience and command their attention. She delivered lines well, got her laughs, got her crowd engaged and into that shared-space, where the audience are happy and willing to follow the poet, to wherever he or she wants to take them.

She built plenty of energy with rhythm and cadence and then dropped into moments of pause and quieter reflection. (There’s a scholarly article to be written, I reckon, about the way tendencies in spoken-word mirror techno and trance music – both with their emphasis on the build-up and ‘the drop’.)

But the pauses were sometimes a bit uncertain – stumbles, even, in the train-of-thought we were following onstage. They seemed to offer confusion, rather than resolution – whatever was emerging from the chrysalis wasn’t coming into the world fully-formed.

Maybe I didn’t quite have the patience for the journey that “#Hypocrisy” took me on. The show started by detailing Imogen’s “one and a half years’ travelling”, busking round Europe, protected from hunger and, one assumes, serious bad-shit of the homeless/hopeless/penniless sort by “the emergency credit card award by my family”.

There was some soul-searching – mostly inspired by (amongst other things) the realisation that picking up gigs on the basis of cultural capital inherited by being from the land of The Beatles/Oasis/Ed Sheeran [delete as appropriate] wasn’t exactly fair on the kids being shunted down or off the bill just because no-one from their home city ever appeared on Top of the Pops.

The second-half mixed stories about different characters (80 year-old Glaswegian, Helen and her 30 year-old Muslim lodger, Amal – Nicholas, a charity worker who dies in Somalia – and Dorin, a refugee from Syria) with Imogen’s reflections.

We were told that the British media draws a veil over Western atrocities in foreign lands; that there’s a very different tenor to being singled out when it gets you gigs and drinks in “Amsterdam, Berlin, Montpellier” and being singled out when it gets you abuse and discrimination in Glasgow; that not everything we see on TV or read in the papers may be ‘entirely’ true; and – finally – that if we “view all people as people”, the world may be a better place for it.

But, I’m afraid my initial response to “#Hypocrisy” was weariness. I’m tired of this shit (not the show, the shit that goes on in the world). I was tired of the British media ignoring the slaughter of civilian families by the West in the nineties, I was tired of it in the noughties, and I’m really fucking tired of it now. Coming from that place, it was hard not to feel that a lot of the show’s insights could just as easily have been gleaned from the op-ed pages of The Guardian or even, the lyrics of this song by Depeche Mode.

There were serious stories woven into the flow – stories worth telling, stories that aren’t told often enough, stories that deserve a platform – but they had a slightly uneasy relationship with the rest of the piece. I felt that the narrative progression, with the emphasis on ‘I’ right through the first-half, lurched slightly awkwardly into the sudden introduction of 3rd parties, Helen and Amal, at the start of the second. And the move from ‘I’, to ‘we’, as the story wound up didn’t really resonate with me. 

I could have done with a bit more anger, a bit more certainty and a bit more commitment. The repeated refrain, “Not entirely true” – which closed each section of the show – was, after all,  another polite qualification (“Not entirely?”. So, a bit true? A bit not true?), a bit of a compromise when I could have done with something more definitive, something that got its arse entirely off the fence.

Let’s face it, if we’re talking about the current state of our social and political discourse – which “#Hypocrisy” was – there’s plenty of shit being published, reported and spoken which isn’t remotely true. No ‘if’s, no ‘but’s, no ‘Mebbes aye and mebbes naw’s.

Now, I really don’t want to be just another moaning old bastard. There was, as I’ve said, a sense that something was emerging onstage – even if it was still finding its feet. If she can find more of herself to put into her stories and if she can deliver something that’s definite rather than qualified, that has a bit more fire and fury and teeth, then I reckon Imogen Stirling could put on quite a show. And there were plenty of people in the room who seemed pretty on-board with what “#Hypocrisy” had to say.

So, if what I’ve said here does make me sound like a moaning, old bastard doing nothing but sniping from the side-lines – it’s because that’s basically what I am and what I do. Even when, sometimes, I really don’t want to.