The Karen has a pulsating, guttural atmosphere flowing through the theatre before the production even begins. James Misselbrook drums out a visceral percussive beat overlayed with distorted bass, a noise that vibrates within the core of each audience member. SoundBoxed Collective creates a spiritual pre-text to its performance that, without words, indicates the oncoming of a ritual, a cult activity, possibly even a sacrifice.
The theatre becomes a temple; the deity is The Karen, spread out in pieces across the floor. Can Jason (Daniel Cunningham), the preacher of the group, summon this dark wonder from the ether and inject its essence into the vessel of Lauren Cooper? Will The Karen rise and continue to exert its almighty strength upon the performers, the audience, indeed all of civilisation outside the temple walls? Can Hope (Hayley Hill) and Pearl (Elaine Johnson) resist its temptations, break free from The Karen’s chains and be reborn as purer human beings, lifted of the obsession for material things like cats or bikes or London property?
Voicemails left by a silky temptress, a Foxton’s estate agent, immediately identify The Karen to many of the audience members. In a city of ever-inflating house prices where privacy is at a premium, an individual’s desperation to inhabit their own personal, almost sacred, space becomes the lifeblood of The Karen. Cooper dons the wig, the corporate jacket and the thigh-high leather boots; she transforms into a thief, a whore, a power hungry vixen with a twinkle in her eye.
This over-the-top interpretation has a tendency to stray from the terrifying into the absurb, particularly in the middle of the show. The decision to sexualise The Karen, whilst conceptually sound, in reality serves to diminish its overwhelming presence. That smooth, sensual voice can pervade the garden that Pearl concocts in her mind as a relaxation haven; it doesn’t require a sadomasochistic routine with water bottles to reinforce its influence. Equally, the tribal chant that precedes Hope’s powerful spoken word dialogue centred on love and faith is somewhat diluted by the birth of a hard-hat, which symbolises The Karen’s self-perpetuating pull over future generations.
This show is glued together by a consistently strong and driving musical undertone led by a fusion of punk and tribal and electro influences that Misselbrook masterminds from behind the drum kit. It is live, raw and unapologetic yet complex in its subtlety. Using major sevenths, dissonances and bending pitch, the compositions carry an uneasy thrust that forces the show onwards into the unknown. In some ways the performers are also the passengers, propelled both by The Karen and the relentless onslaught of the music.
Once begun, the ritual is destined to reach completeness; no way back to the start; no getting off the rollercoaster. Even the audience are compelled to interact, devoid of choice in summoning The Karen, succumbing to its influence and, like Pearl, unable to resist its tendrils as they delve through any meditative space used as a form of protection.
Ultimately the message is one of sacrificing our material desires to release us from their evil pull. In a complementary blend of old and new, the collective engage The Karen in a bacchanalian orgy of grapes and wine. The audience are left to look on as The Karen gorges on its own hedonistic pleasures; the music and sermons and chanting swell to an all-consuming climax, Cunningham’s deep, soulful voice punctuates the din, and The Karen is no more.
The Karen was on as part of Incoming Festival. For more information, click here.