A young man, clad in smart chequered shirt and immaculately crafted hairdo, walks on to the stage. He sits down at a desk (on which rest a stack of papers and glass of water) and gives a brief, welcoming nod at the audience. And then he launches, without warning, into a loud, passionate diatribe.
So begins This is How we Die, the brain-child of Christopher Brett Bailey. Written and performed by the American artist, this is unlike any piece of theatre I’ve seen before. The performance is a mix of performance poetry, spoken word, gonzo journalism and surreal black humour, all packed into one hour of organised oral chaos.
Everything about this fascinating piece screams Americana, and comparisons have very rightly been made to William S. Burroughs; but as obvious as that influence is, I can’t help but be reminded of Tarantino and, to a lesser extent, David Lynch. We have the angry, disillusioned youth; the violence and obscenity; the psychedelic musing – tropes found in films like Natural Born Killers and Blue Velvet and emulated brilliantly here.
Bailey is mesmerising as the orator and storyteller of this piece. It’s a performance full of passion and aggression, but sprinkled with moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humour and tenderness. Bailey has the audience in the palm of his hands, not only through the power that his eloquence commands but also with the subtle raising of an eyebrow or the flicker of a smile.
As with all good gonzo writing the line between reality and fiction is skewed, often ridiculously so, but the constant feeling is that of a lost world. Whether through the recklessness of youth or the displacement from society, everyone in Bailey’s universe is hurtling fearlessly and aimlessly towards oblivion. That is portrayed, rather unnervingly, by the closing sequence of the piece. As Bailey leaves the stage, the audience are subjected a very long and very loud musical performance – screeching electric guitars and haunting strings echo around the auditorium, heightening that feeling of obliteration. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the noise, but that was arguably the point – there was no desire to appease the audience at the end, it was to unnerve.
My thoughts on the musical performance aside, This is How we Die was a tremendous piece of theatre. Much is made of the passion that artists bring to their work, and Bailey’s performance is the perfect example of that. It’s a beautifully-constructed, beautifully-orated piece of performance poetry, and Christopher Brett Bailey is someone to watch out for.