The title fools me at first. How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse sounds overwhelmingly like a self help manual or a life skills seminar, and considering the wealth of creative inspiration that the current sorry state of society provides, I arrive expecting some hard-hitting commentary on Donald Trump. And sure, Francesca Beard delivers; there are scraps of current events, including references to Nigel Farage and Theresa May, and even a tongue-in-cheek ditty about America’s “orange” leader, but her vision is much bigger than that.
This is evident from the moment she emerges onto the stage as nothing but a silhouette and a booming, disembodied voice, suffused with illuminated haze. In a monologue as abstract as her voice, Beard projects images of a mythical reconstruction of a modern world that is “half-mammal, half-device”. It’s powerful in a soothsayer-in-a-spaceship sort of way, but what makes it resonate is the swift contrast when the haze fades away and the lights turn on and Beard emerges from the mist, grinning at the audience. “I’m your guide,” she says. “I’m Francesca.”
Over the next hour, Beard acts as our self-professed shaman as she shifts, chameleon-like, from conversational leader to structured poet to disembodied voice of wisdom, negotiating the transitions with admirable ease on a mythic quest for truth. Of these personas, the most representative of her poetic skill is when she slips into the more obviously rehearsed spoken word, conjuring visceral images of the “tofu of brain matter”, blades of grass like “thick green tongues”, or the way in which “neurons pop and fizz like shook champagne”. Her words never feel hyperbolic or pretentious, thanks in part to the fact that Beard establishes a limbo between myth and reality in which the audience is never sure what rules apply. It’s what lets her get away with saying phrases like “pledge their troth” without the audience blinking an eye.
Though Beard brings this world to life with her words and personality, it is the stunning special effects that take her illusion the extra mile. There are standout moments: Beard’s figure in the darkness made saintly as she is illuminated by a halo of light; trapdoors opened as squares of red light and smoke; a noise like Disney’s Goofy sneezing accompanying a note that abseils down from the ceiling into her hand. The effects never feel heavy-handed, and if they occasionally stray into the realm of the obvious (projections of current events, for example), they manage to avoid clichÃ© by virtue of the tongue-in-cheek slant to the show that Beard constantly returns to.
Though Beard’s skill as a poet thrives most within the illusory special-effects world, her skill as a performer blooms in her interaction with the audience. It is clear from the show’s pre-set, with its dark stage in contrast with the illuminated lights of the audience seats, that Beard is interested in discussion, not didacticism. We become the protagonists in a quest through a fantasy landscape of metaphors, a premise that only occasionally falls flat, principally because it gets too caught up in the labels of the various stops rather than what they might mean for the broader quest, an unfortunate slip-up in a show that otherwise feels economical in its use of time.
However, Beard’s charisma and humour is so sparkling, and her ease and engagement with the audience so genuine, that any confusion throughout the performance is always overwhelmed by captivation. Blurring the lines between mythical heroic quest and everyday life, she invites us to participate in game-show segments like “Whose Lie is it Anyway”, or script readings of classical romance that have been ruined by brutal honesty. It is through these that Beard comes closest to satisfying audience expectations of concrete answers, because despite the fact that the truth that we are supposedly searching for is meant to be nebulous and universal, the audience actually ends up learning something far more subtle and introspective, and just as interactive as the performance itself.
In an offhand moment, Beard muses that “maybe we save the biggest lies for the people we love the most.” Then, almost as if the idea has just occurred to her, she asks us all to imagine a person close to us that we’ve had on our minds recently, and to think of the one thing that we wouldn’t tell them because we know it would break the relationship. For me, the answer comes to mind so quickly that I am taken aback. It’s not a case of being given an answer to digest; in Beard’s case, it’s not the anticlimactic end of the quest provides the show’s true meaning, but the realisations we have along the way.
Beard admits towards the end of the show that she personally has no experience being a shaman, but it doesn’t matter. Despite the performance being about lies and deception, the part she plays in it hinges on honesty; by laying herself bare to the audience, she encourages us, however unconsciously, to do the same. Hers is a lesson not in surviving in a lie, but of recognizing the part that we play in creating it, and I doubt that anyone with less charisma, mastery of language and enthusiasm than Beard could make me come close to realising that.
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