ELLA WILSON reviews How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse at the Battersea Arts Centre.

In How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse, writer and performance-poet Francesca Beard immediately rebuffs our expectations. Following her entrance in a cloud of apocalyptic smoke and flames, she asks the audience if we have come tonight expecting social commentary on a world of ‘post-truth’, Brexit jokes, and perhaps even some poetry about Donald Trump. There is a murmur of assent, and Beard obliges, performing a short slam poem: ‘Bad Man/Orange Tan’. It’s terrible, and she tosses it behind her. That is not what this show is about.

Instead, Beard’s one-woman show is about the things which lies are made of – words and imagination. The show itself is made of these, utilising a Dungeons and Dragons-esque quest structure, in which we, the audience, join her on her journey to discover how to survive a world of lies. Beard’s character, our self-declared ‘sham-shaman’, guides us on ‘an epic adventure through a wonderland of lies, fictions, Wikipedia facts, and the stories we tell ourselves’, in which we are all complicit. The piece goes heavy on the audience participation, as at each stage disembodied voices bestow tasks upon Beard and the audience. Though not all the tasks are equally entertaining, each comically highlights the absurdity of lies in all their forms. We are told that according to Wikipedia there are 27 kinds of lie. Because ‘we don’t care about facts, we like story’, for one task Beard gives us an exemplifying scene, ‘The Job Interview’ which cycles through all 27, each type of lie announced through background projection.

Photo courtesy of Claire Haigh.

Through its very structure, the show buys into this belief: that we prefer story. Beard requests we use our imaginations – pulling up an audience member for a scene, she says ‘You’re wearing a cloak of moonbeams and a talking raven is perched on your shoulder. Other than that, just be yourself.’ Now is not the time for cynicism, but for the suspension of disbelief. As we supposedly seek truth in a world drowning in lies, each chapter of our quest is titled ‘The Hollow Mouth’, ‘The Mirrored Lake’, or ‘The Obsidian Chasm’, and each fantastical location is created only by words. The world Beard builds is at times amorphous and easy to get lost in, given that our only hold on it is her dialogue, but some very smart lighting, projection choices and title cards help to guide us through a narrative that is otherwise left up to our imaginations.

The piece is something of a mishmash, and the tonal shifts sometimes work, but are occasionally jarring. Statements like ‘If we couldn’t lie, love would be over’ are played as sardonic and silly, but with an undercurrent always of seriousness. But this note of sobriety is often too subtle, yet occasionally hammered too heavily home. The first transition from the apocalyptic opening into a brighter, more conversational, comic style works, but later moments of quiet and darkness amid the merry quest do not always fit. This problem is resolved by the conclusion though, which is surprisingly sombre and powerful. Following the comically frustrated end to the quest – ‘FUCKING QUESTS!’ – Beard comes to the paradoxical realisation that words make our reality, but words are not ‘real’. In this moment the character’s own suspension of disbelief crumbles, and the quest narrative, built of words and nothing more, crumbles too. The weaker parts of the show are tossed aside in favour of something stronger and more interesting. ‘We’re just going to stop now,’ she says, ‘I’m going to shut up now.’

Photo courtesy of Claire Haigh.

It is only once Beard’s character strips herself of her trappings – her costume, the quest structure, even her character’s intonations – that we seem to arrive at the point: this whole piece has been a lie. The only thing that isn’t is a simple, sensory childhood memory, and the words we are given now feel like examples from Beard’s real life. While Beard’s character reminisces, she talks about bubbles, and while standing in a simple spotlight, around her feet bubbles of blue light fan out and delicately multiply. With the lighting, sound, Beard’s costume and her manner all pared back, the memory is recounted with such meditative purity that it becomes the only moment in the piece with a ring of truth.

As Beard tells us earlier, storytellers create magic. The line between lies and imagination does not really exist, and as she has tried to prove through her construction of a fantastical quest, storytellers can make impossible things happen. She wryly concludes: ‘But I’m not a storyteller. I’m a poet, and poets make normal things… weird.’ By her own definition, in this piece she is actually both. In her final moments on stage, Beard tells us that she knows only one thing to be true, and that thing is more like a fragment of poetic truth than a story: ‘Every breath in is a new beginning, every breath out a letting go.’

How to Survive a Post-Truth Apocalypse is on tour. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Claire Haigh.