This review, and the production itself, comes with a trigger warning, here reprinted in full from the programme notes:
Smack That (a conversation) is set at a party and celebrates human resilience and survival. The show shines a light on the subject of domestic abuse and as such, discusses themes of an adult nature, sexual violence and domestic abuse.
Beverly has invited you to her party. There are six of her, in silvery dresses and white-blonde wigs, and she’s plying you with cider, popcorn and sweets. Except you’re Beverly too; as we take our seats, arranged in a square around a central space, we learn that we’re all Beverlys here. Everyone is Beverly at the Beverly party, because everyone is party to the things we’re about to experience – not just in the show, but, as the piece makes clear, in our lives. Because one in four women are the victims of domestic abuse. Which means it is almost impossible for any of the people in the audience to not know someone who has been affected by it.
Smack That (a conversation) was developed by Rhiannon Faith alongside female survivors of domestic abuse, who took part in workshops and interviews organised by Safer Places and Harlow Playhouse. Much of the text used in Smack That is verbatim and anonymous, spoken into hanging microphones by our troupe of Beverlys – our hosts, our party girls.
As befits any good, and indeed many extremely bad, parties, the audience are invited to play games, but each of these games links back to the main theme. We get into Never Have I Ever, confessing to silly sexual misdeeds, embarrassing mishaps and awkward blunders, until the Beverlys slide into darker, more difficult questions: ‘Never have I ever woken up with a man inside me. Never have I ever been humiliated in front of people I love. Never have I ever been hit.’ A game of Pass the Parcel reveals, at each layer, a packet of Haribo sweets and a scrap of paper with a domestic abuse statistic, which an audience or performer Beverly reads out. There is a ‘present’ under every chair, filled with resources for people who want to report domestic violence, or talk to someone about it, as well as more sweets and a party popper.
Each time a party game takes a turn for the darker, sadder, more serious, the interactive nature of the piece drops away, spotlighting the performing Beverlys. The dance sections are raw, unpolished, with a collapsing, exhausted quality – limbs are thrown around, bodies are flopped onto bodies, with the abandon and chaotic energy of sycamore seeds helicoptering on the wind. Unisons are shaky, imperfect, as the Beverlys mirror one another empathically, instinctively, rather than with a rigidity of rehearsal.
It is somewhat unclear who this performance is for, or what message we are supposed to take away from it, other than ‘be aware’. The interactive nature of Smack That doesn’t quite go far enough to disrupt or disturb the audience, only to make them a little awkward and/or pleased to get a chance to play a game. This raises the question of whether interactive and immersive theatre about a potentially triggering subject should be used to disrupt and disturb the audience – in which case, why make it interactive at all? The structure of Smack That, chaining interaction to dance to verbatim text, doesn’t quite work, doesn’t feel as if it is digging deep enough as a medium or cohering enough as a piece. Sometimes it feels as if choreographer Rhiannon Faith is showing us her workings, the underlying rough draft of a performance that should be finished.
Interestingly, though, Smack That succeeds and even excels as an example of how the creation and execution of an art piece can be responsive, emotionally intelligent and responsible, and this is where the style is turned on its head. Faith leaves the pencil sketches visible, yes, but in this way she also lets her audience see the sort of effort and empathy that has gone into its creation. ‘Show your workings’ might not necessarily work for all dance-theatre but it adds a dimension to Smack That that is valuable and helpful.
Smack That is part of the Barbican’s 2018 season, The Art of Change, and is a great example of how theatre and theatre spaces can change the way they connect with their audience. If you’ve been reading this review, wondering, as I did, what you would do if you were a victim or survivor of domestic abuse and found this performance triggering, just know that the Barbican has provided a break-out space, allowing audience members to leave the audience at any time, enter a quiet, safe area, and return whenever they like. A qualified therapist is on hand to provide short-term support and re-direction to other services as required. So, while Smack That isn’t a stop-in-your-tracks masterpiece, it is what we can hope is a crest on a wave of a different sort of theatre, from a choreographer who dares to create in an inclusive, socially conscious way.
Smack That (a conversation) is on until 16 June 2018 at the Barbican. Click here for more details.