In the belly of ‘Beast’

[Author’s note #1: In case it’s not immediately 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: Trigger Warning – the article below discusses physical and sexual abuse.]

‘Beast’ is on daily at half-past Midnight, in the Banqueting Hall at the Banshee Labyrinth (Venue 156) until Sunday 26 August. It’s a PBH Free Fringe production, so admission is free though donations are encouraged after the show. You can buy the print edition of ‘Beast’ from Burning Eye Books.

I went to see Liam McCormick’s ‘Beast’ at the Banshee Labyrinth, in the early hours of this morning. Afterwards, I chatted to Liam for a little while and I hope to follow this article up with another Q&A, in due course. It was (sort of) the second time I’d seen this show. The first being Sonnet Youth’s presentation back in March, to tie-in with Liam’s book launch.

I say, “sort of”, because it’s clear to me that ‘Beast’ doesn’t really exist as a finished, scripted show, so much as a continuing investigation of exactly how you put a book like ‘Beast’ on the stage. The show I saw this morning was markedly different to the staging at Drygate in March. Bits had been added in, bits taken out.

The opening was more immediate, it started with an interactive, call and response poem and then a hip-hop piece, rapped over a recorded backing track. There was more use of technology overall – video segments, performers interacting with pre-recorded audio, more music – all sorts. 

Liam_Beast_Image

But ‘Beast’ is still a difficult show to write about – partly because it’s deliberately chaotic and partly because of its subject matter. ‘Beast’ comes from, and goes to, some very dark places.

Its not show for everyone but, if you’re open to being challenged by what you see and hear, it can be weirdly entertaining. Sometimes, it’s entertaining in the way that The Fall were entertaining during their ‘Hex Enduction Hour’-era, or Vic and Bob were entertaining in the first series  of ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ – in that, you don’t really know why you’re enjoying it but you are. Sometimes, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes, it’s none of these things.

I’ve always admired Liam McCormick as a performer. I never got to see him as Billy Jnr in Louie John Lowis’ ‘Inheritance’ – I wish I had and I wish ‘Inheritance’ would get another run somewhere, sometime soon – but I think Liam pushes the performative aspects of performance-poetry further than almost anyone else I’ve seen. During ‘Beast’ he’s a ball of energy, dashing off-stage to shake hands with everybody in the back row of the audience, switching characters and pulling faces.

He’s also got phenomenal mic technique – something that, maybe, doesn’t sound like much but really matters in the context of spoken word. He has a battery of effects – a close-miked, ‘heavy breathing’ style, stepping away from the mic and using his voice naturally, making the mic work with his body and movement –  and they were all deployed in the course of ‘Beast’.

All of this adds to the show’s impact. It’s chaotic and it often doesn’t always make much linear sense. It’s also really, really dependent on its audience. Every show benefits from having an engaged audience – but I don’t think the audience’s experience of most shows will be as dependent on the extent to which they themselves, as an audience, are up for engaging and responding to the show. (If that makes sense.) You’ll come out of ‘Beast’ feeling very differently if you see it as part of an audience who either ‘get it’ or don’t ‘get it’ (Bearing in mind that ‘getting it’ may mean different things to different people).

The chaos is, I think, both deliberate and consequential. It reflects the subject-matter, in that ‘Beast’ tells the story of a young woman, Zara (played this morning by Jade Taylor) and other characters who are living chaotic lives. It reflects the chaotic mental state of its characters and their chaotic emotional states.

‘Beast’ is a show about abuse – and about coming to terms with abuse, in different ways. It clearly comes from a dark place and it features characters who, for different reasons and in different ways, are trapped in dark places – though it ends on a note of catharsis and there’s no doubt that the emotional and narrative arc takes the characters towards the light, rather than leaving them entirely in the dark.

But it doesn’t present much in the way of obvious answers. I can’t help but think that Liam McCormick’s continuing re-working of the material – after the show he talked about wanting to make a film version which will, no doubt, be different again from what I saw onstage – is, in itself a continued attempt to work out how he feels about the issues that ‘Beast’ deals with.

Part of me hopes that, one day – sooner, perhaps, rather than later – he comes to feel that his work on ‘Beast’ has reached some kind of apotheosis – that he can leave it be, and ‘Beast’ can leave him be for a while.

Another part of me thinks – given that some of the value in ‘Beast’ is in the opportunities it presents for discussion and reflection on stuff that usually gets swept under the carpet and never, ever talked about – that he should carry on and keep on carrying on. I suspect the latter is more likely than the former.

After all, the experiences that ‘Beast’ is built from aren’t something you can put down like a book and come back to when you feel like it. People’s experience of abuse is a weight that they carry all their lives.

Years ago, I worked for an organisation involved in safeguarding children in schools and children’s homes. One of the things I learned, in the course of this work, was that adult survivors of abuse often don’t come forward until later life – more specifically, until after their parents have passed away.

There are reasons for this, to do with the barriers that the abuser places between the vulnerable child and his/her family and the feeling, among some adult survivors, that they need to protect their parents from the guilt that they would feel if they found out what had happened to their children.

What this made clear to me was the extent to which adult survivors were living with the pain of their abuse all their lives. It’s symptomatic of the twisted mirror-world that abusers force their victims into, that the death of a parent can present, in a truly terrible  way, as a form of release.

I believe this is changing. I believe that more young people today (Not enough, to be clear, but more) are being helped and supported to escape from the emotional and psychological prison that their abuser and their experience of abuse locks them into.

I believe that, sometimes, this help comes through supporting the discussion of abuse, its enablers and its effects, creating and maintaining frames and spaces within which everyone – but particularly young people – can be helped to understand and escape the effect of abuse on their own terms and in their own way.

I believe that ‘Beast’ is intended to be, and acts as, such a frame and that it can help enable some of these discussions. For that reason, but not just for that reason, I hope that ‘Beast’ is seen by as many people as possible.

[If you have experienced abuse and need support or someone to talk to, Victim Support Scotland (0345 603 9213) will be able to help or put you in touch with a group or organisation in your local area]

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