To get it out of the way early on, Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is astounding. That doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable, of course. In many ways it’s a difficult show to watch. But yes, you should go see it. Other than that, it feels inappropriate and possibly unhelpful to give a summative assessment of the show. Instead, I’ll write a few thoughts that I hope run alongside the piece.
I have a staggering amount of respect for someone who relives their trauma onstage night after night. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is her first solo show in nearly a decade, and Kimmings opens it with a rundown of her more recent theatrical history, noting a teary-eyed pattern that runs through shows that are inspired by her own autobiography and family relationships.
Autobiography is still the story here. She goes in so honestly and viscerally about her life in 2015-16: her postnatal breakdown, the breakdown of her relationship with her husband, and coping with her newborn son’s diagnosis of infantile spasms.
Much of this is symbolised by the cottage she lived in at the time, and she uses a model of this house as a map to orient her states. She also uses tape recordings of her mother, offering insight and advice like a shoulder angel, an external source of observation that distils and makes sense of the visual chaos Kimmings offers up. There’s a shoulder devil too, a distorted version of Kimmings’ voice characterised as a male theatre dramaturg, whose caustic critique of the show becomes blurred with self-criticism and self-hate.
Inspired by the psychological method called the ‘rewind technique’, where traumatic memories are reprocessed, Kimmings performs and sings little vignettes in front of stationary cameras that depict her varying emotional and mental states. Brutally hilarious, definitely twisted, and oddly beautiful, they move from film noir references to mother earth fantasy realness.
While there is a self-reflective quality to these clips (sort of like YouTube videos) they are not mirrored back to Kimmings. Instead they are broadcast outwards, projected on a screen above for us to watch. What’s made clear is that while there is a reprocessing happening, it’s not just for Kimmings. In a truly arresting display of her darkest moments, Kimmings stands mostly stationary, with swirling projections framing her, restricting her, drowning her. She moves with them, but is also strangely alienated from them. But it’s us, the audience, that get the full experience.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is a stunning show that looks inward to thrust outwards. Using her experiences, Kimmings strives to share what trauma feels like, what it looks like, how it settles in the stomach, and how to live with it.
Perhaps most poignantly, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch emphasises that the act of reprocessing is and will always be partially unfinished, always in process. Throughout the show, Kimmings records little messages to her son, Frank, who she hopes will listen to them in the future. She gets her audience to say hi as well. The reprocessing itself becomes an experience, a memory, a storyline with a deferred ending. We become a part of her story as much as she becomes a part of ours, both which continue on long past the show is finished. And yet, in that moment, the future, the present, the past, soar up together, preciously compacted and bravely shared.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 20th October. More info here.