There are a plethora of shows at Mayfest this year that feature a meta-commentary about the artifice or craft of making a show. In the past week, we’ve had The Complete Deaths, with “director” Toby talking to the audience about their bourgeois attitudes to art and the need to confront their mortality; we’ve had Jamie Wood’s O No! with its sweet, knowing dissection of Yoko Ono’s art and what it means to “make art”; we’ve had Chekhov’s First Play, with director’s commentary over the action telling us about what’s going on; we’ve had Paradise Lost, with Ben Duke switching between playing God and a version of himself, with a running commentary on what he’s doing.
Which brings us to Stuart Bowden’s Wilting in Reverse. It’s a lovely, if strange, show, and one that on its own would prove to be a diverting and occasionally moving hour. Set in amongst so many other shows that feature the performer as a character, or offer glimpses of the performer in the real world, or draw attention to the artificialness of theatre, it’s hard to avoid rating their effectiveness against each other, and this one doesn’t always match up.
The conceit in Bowden’s play is that Bowden is dead and has left behind a script, complete with stage directions and props, for another person to read/perform. Except that the performer is Bowden, playing someone else, playing Bowden, before he died. Got that? Right.
So, in the year 2085, this Bowden-not-Bowden tells us the story that Bowden wants us to hear, as a kind of memorial. It’s a strange and affecting story, taking in space colonisation, lost loves and the importance of telling ourselves stories. So far, so great, but I’m not convinced that all of its extra bits necessarily add to it. Bowden plays music and sings, creating simple looping melodies – as the script calls for a choir, or an orchestra, or a band – and although these are pleasant enough, they add little to the narrative. He also brings audience members onto stage to serve as Amy, the woman he was in love with, but it’s not quite clear how much they are expected to react or interact with him.
He narrates what he’s doing all the way through, reading a line from the script or a stage direction, acting it out (looking, thinking, walking, running) and then moving on. He also commentates, as “himself” – that being the actor playing Bowden who is not Bowden himself – pointing out good bits in the script or complaining when stage directions contradict themselves.
I should say at this point that it’s hilarious. Bowden is an enchanting performer, and his muttered asides and interaction with hapless audience members are very funny. The whole show feels a bit muddled as its many layers of artifice are explored but not fully developed. Large chunks of the narrative are inconclusive, and the ending, where three audience members are asked to answer some pretty searching questions about their own lives, is a bit too giggly to be taken seriously, although you can see how on another night with different people it could be very affecting.
Ultimately, I think my niggles with Bowden’s show come from having seen too much that is similar over the past few days, which is not at all fair to Bowden, who is extremely funny. However, If you’re going to riff on how we tell stories and how we make theatre, and expose that process to scrutiny, you have to be pretty confident that the work you’ve made can withstand it. In the case of Wilting in Reverse, it mostly can by virtue of being so funny, but it is a thin line to tread and there are moments when Bowden lands on the wrong side.
Wilting in reverse is on as part of Mayfest 2016. For more information, click here.