As a teenager, Jean Jacques Rousseau found himself in the service of the wealthy Comtesse de Vercellis. One day he stole a pink and silver ribbon from his mistress. This ribbon was reported missing, and found on young Jean Jacques’s person. He lied to his employer, claiming that he was gifted it by a young kitchen maid called Marion. Both were dismissed.
When he came to transcribe the episode for his Confessions, the ribbon-thief wrote that ‘the Count de la Roque, in sending us both away, contented himself with saying, “The conscience of the guilty would revenge the innocent.” His prediction was true, and is being daily verified.’ The Count’s prediction is still true. Rousseau’s process of ‘verification’— his original shame—will continue as long as writers harness their own shame for artistic edification, catharsis or absolution.
This year’s Fringe certainly doesn’t escape it. As self-described ‘poet, educator and storyteller’ John Berkavitch ambles unassumingly towards the audience, his steps echo a long way back. Physically he looks defensive, perhaps a little nervous. He holds his words with trepidation, like a child, and tells us that his show is about some of the things in his life he’s ashamed of. At this juncture there is a certain amount of doubt as to whether we are going to be hearing a fictional or real autobiography. Things become even more surreal when three men dressed in white join him and begin leering at him, then beat and goad him into confessing his real sins. There is a blackout, and Shame begins. Everyone seems a bit bamboozled.
Four stories comprise the narrative of the show. Two are about family, one is about friendship, another about sex. Thematically it’s a good split, covering a wide enough range of universal human experience to glean a relatable sense of Berkavitch’s biography. The stories themselves are told in fragments. Switching between them was initially confusing, but it doesn’t take all that long to get used to the structure: chronological storytelling would have been easier, but then the show would have lost something of the wild energy which provides its core.
Berkavitch’s dancers are a Protean chorus tasked with maintaining the wildness. They are exhilarating to watch. Spoken word shows can often be reduced to the narrator figure and the language he or she uses, but Shame breaks this mould by simplifying the language, and ceding the fireworks and flourishes to a physical activity. At its most exciting, Berkavitch competes with his dancers: the verbal and the physical become symbiotic as they whirl around him, creating scenes only to destroy that concordance by physically attacking him, manipulating and being manipulated by him.
The sensual assault approach can be a bit tricky because sometimes all the whirling limbs make it hard to concentrate on one particular thing, which makes you feel like you’ve missed something. The denouement I found to be very problematic, almost saccharine. We are told that all these stories are true, and then Berkavitch directly asks us to think about our lives, asks us the question ‘What are you ashamed of?’ To my mind, an assertion of autobiographical truth is rarely necessary in a show like this: an audience doesn’t need to know whether the stories are true or not for them to have an impact. A show about shame shouldn’t need to ask this question so blatantly: the whole process of observing ought naturally to encourage reflection on our own lives, and if we decide not to reflect, that is outside of the performer’s control. In fact, we are less likely to engage with something that tries to predetermine our reactions.
Things get even trickier because Berkavitch’s stories are mainly comprised of moral grey areas. The show would have been more challenging if we had been given the chance to really judge our narrator for something (especially if we follow the injunction to think about what we are ashamed of, because we may end up condemning ourselves more by way of comparison).
On the night I saw the show they were having significant technical difficulties with the lights, so the fact that hardly anyone seemed to notice is a real testament to the quality of the piece. Berkavitch is pushing the envelope for the spoken word show: the combination of dance and spoken word is utterly invigorating, and feels like fresh new territory.