Riding the cultural conveyor belt at Latitude can be an uneasy experience: the coming and going, the walking in and out, passing through, observing, standing back, pushing to the front, consuming everything at a indigestion inducing rate.
It’s part of the pleasure of the ride when it’s spat back at you by Sh!t Theatre’s marvellous Dollywould. In their Daisy Dukes, the double act of Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole, the Bert and Ernie of North London, almost vomit up their obsession with Dolly Parton with such speed it seems both unseemly and entirely fitting. Please, someone, give these two their own TV show now.
“The only art that matters is the art that lasts” and in this damp cabaret tent their relationship with Dolly herself is a confusingly brilliant stream of consciousness, delivered as they peer out of faces covered in cream, preserving the preserved legacy of Dolly Parton. Science and art collude to make Dolly’s embalmment feel literal, as the intrepid pair journey through Dolly’s own narrative, via a trip to a theme park devoted to her life, Dollywood.
There are lots of tits of course: theirs, which look bizarrely plastic as they poke through the holes they cut in their t-shirts, and the pair of tits the Shi!ts become in the huge person-sized boob costumes they climb into. Their ballad to Dolly reaches out with the random logic of a drunken Google search, creating their own version of an artistic legend that can compete with any goddess of myth.
Cultural iconography moves beyond biography for the Sh!ts: our consumption of and relationships with our heroes is as messy and important as anything real life can offer. In the stunning Re-Member Dickie Beau leaves his own profound mark on Hamlet: both the part and its players, all who ever so fleetingly speak of “my Hamlet.” He prods and pierces the play, and exposes the mechanics of its performance as he lipsyncs to recorded testimonies from, amongst others, Ian McKellen and Gielgud, his own agent and Daniel Day Lewis’ dresser. At one point the recordings break down, mash up and we have to start again. But even this unexpected pause seems magical, the ghosts of the theatrical past merging in a surreal dream where Dickie Beau’s relationship with both the part and its theatrical legacy mirror his own longings: he believes he will never play Hamlet.
It is just a part, true, and it’s clear as we move through the Hamlets that each one is replaceable. Dickie Beau amplifies this feeling, as he playfully pulls apart the arms and legs of shop dummies, dresses them and serenades them. Yet he also summons up these ghosts as testament to the struggle of the actors who played the Dane, and their offstage battles. They might have lived in a world that worshipped their talents almost as supernatural gifts, but they were also part of a hypocritical society that criminalised and stigmatised them as gay men. The story of Ian Charleson’s Hamlet, performed as he was dying of AIDS, is the most poignant of them all. Here art and life meet in a cruel and celebratory way, and youth, beauty and tragic fragility of life itself is remembered by Dickie Beau on behalf of us all. It sears through our collective cultural conscience on behalf of the past. And I am desperate to see this again.
A version of self and how that perception is magnified by ideas around place is explored in short plays produced by Paines Plough, read by the playwrights themselves in a collection called Come to Where I’m From. Place seems abstract here, although in a small part of Latitude’s Faraway Forest luggage tickets leave the mark of others who have visited this performance, stating where they are from. Being from somewhere is hard to come to terms with and as the playwrights read their first person testimonies in their own voices their words feel confessional, like where you come from and your past leaves its stain that won’t ever shift.
Like Re-member me, Vinay Patel’s performance tries to reconcile himself to his present by making sense of the past. He is clearly affectionate to his younger self, and knows the journey he has been on has led him somewhere far away from him. He looks back wryly at Peckham “before it became Monaco”, or the unforgettable moment when he saw Geoffrey from Fresh Prince of Belair in the flesh in a play. Would his former self even understand where he has arrived, when the distance between them seems so great?
“The theatre…where people like us are discussed by people who don’t look like us.” Vinay Patel plays his former fifteen year old self in his own voice, and as this play gathers pace, it brings them closer, so that in several moments it is hard to distinguish the former from the latter.
Must we continue to play ourselves or will we be forever defined, like Geoffrey from Fresh Prince, by a character we once were in a purgatorial Ground Hog Day? Maybe Dolly Parton’s got it sussed. Throughout DollyWould, Sh!t Theatre repeat the story that Dolly once entered a drag Dolly contest and lost. The drag-a-likes looked more like Dolly than she did. It’s a story I’ve heard before and that Dolly herself has told with relish. Dolly has always been way ahead of every game. Like performing Hamlet, the part is the thing. What we layer on top of that is a version of someone we once were or are or would like to be, or like Dolly, we embrace the unlikely beauty of the “town tramp”. She never gave a shit. Is what’s underneath it all really worth that exposure? Maybe this is what Shakespeare means in Hamlet when he writes “This above all: to thine own self be true.” The trick is knowing for definite who you are from the start. And that is a gift bestowed by the Gods to the very few indeed.