It is shameless personal interest that led me to ask Exeunt if I could cover Ken. I only had the experience of seeing the man in person twice but throughout my years in Liverpool, he seemed to ghost the grass roots theatre happening in the city. Teenagers reading bizarre spoken-word accompanied by an elderly harpist. A woman dressed as a badger playing drums in the roof of a crumbling nightclub. A 33 (and a half) hour improvathon, with performers shaken awake and pushed straight onstage. Throughout all this, there was a thread of ingenuity, of naughtiness that was so unquestionably… Ken Campbell.
Terry Johnson, playwright of Insignificance and other brilliance, has grasped that thread and pulled it into this warm, funny play, largely performed by Johnson himself. It’s an extended eulogy for his late friend, inspiration and, occasionally, tormentor.
As my friend from Liverpool and I took our seats (with fangirl chirps of “ahhhh… WE’RE IN THE WARP”), she suddenly gripped my arms so hard she left indentation, her eyes fixed on the person sat next to her. “He… he’s in the show, right?” “I bloody hope so,” I replied, as there in full, mad-eyebrow glory sat Ken, resurrected. I’d love to tell you that this was some Andy Kaufman death-hoax twist, but obviously it was Jeremy Stockwell in an uncanny, imitative performance. His ad-libs and heckling from the audience channelled that unique maverick energy into the space. Pure Ken, always looking to subvert the status quo, to bring in that element of risk.
Designer Tim Shorthall has taken rare advantage of The Bunker’s unusual set up, the mismatch of chairs and sofas scattered over the tiered auditorium and stage, atop a psycadelic swirling carpet that achieves a surreal mash-up of strange magic and nasty ’70s dinner-party aesthetic. The Bunker, in my humble, scenography-obsessed opinion, has one of the most underrated stage/audience set-ups in London Fringe spaces.
In Ken, Shorthall been carefully organised the space to make the flow of ‘Ken’ and ‘Johnson’ through the audience and through their memories feel fluid and real, sidestepping any possible pantomimic pitfall forever present when half your action involves barracking across the auditorium. It’s work that is fully utilised by director Lisa Spirling, who is the Queen of creating natural dynamic between performers, frequently in unnatural environments.
Though the last part of Ken wavers in its extended sentimentality, it is balanced by Johnson’s un-contrived performance. He says he has barely acted since his days with Ken, and I can’t help feeling that we have missed out. The writing and delivery are movingly introspective and stop Ken descending into a love-in of anecdotes. No mean feat, as Campbell’s life seems sometimes to have been entirely made up of stories, madcap capers and misadventure. His pissing off of Trevor Nunn* saw him legally labelled ‘a public mischief’. Something we should all aspire to.
There’s a confusion that for directors and theatre makers to proudly not play by the rules is to be a shouting bully (see the recent revelations re. Tarantino forcing Uma Thurman to undertake an unsafe stunt). It’s also a quality that seems be solely applauded in white men; actions considered eccentric earn women and/or people of colour reputations as ‘difficult’ or divas. Campbell might have been occasionally cruel to Johnson, but always with wanting to see more of him rather than contorting him to fit an auteur’s vision.
There are lessons in Johnson’s celebration of Campbell’s life and work. ‘Ken’ calls his performers ‘seekers’, encouraging them to experiment: ‘don’t be boring’, throw off your shame, resist mediocrity and if in doubt, get naked and jump on the table. Lessons for life as well as for theatre.
*I’m not telling you what he did in case you see the show. Just Google ‘Ken Campbell RSC’ and thank me later.
Ken is at The Bunker until February 24th. For more details, click here.