SOPHIE CUNDALL reviews Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die at Ovalhouse.
This Is How We Die (and you very nearly do).
It is not often you leave a show feeling physically sick. It is even rarer that this can be considered a positive outcome. Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, however, achieves just this. In this piece that is driven entirely by language and voice acting, ’the tongue is a weapon, it is a whip,’you are certainly injured by the time you stumble out of the pitch dark finale. Cathartic is not a strong enough term. Performed by Bailey himself, perched on the edge of the vast hole left by the seminal play We Dig, the show punches you in the face as Bailey spits out words so fast that sometimes you wonder if he’s switched into the post-apocalyptic language of A Clockwork Orange. You laugh, you cry, you laugh and cry, and afterwards, you need a little more than something to take the edge off. It is surreal, repulsive, hypnotic and touching all at the same time. No mean feat for a man sat alone at a desk with a stack of paper and a glass of water.
The bureaucratic set with the Lynchian Bailey at the centre seems to perfectly summarise a play meant for a ‘world convinced it is dying’, as the flyer warns you. A world convinced it is dying, certainly, but doing little to nothing about it. There’s a gaping hole opening up underneath us, but our 9-5s drenched in yellow light and stacks of white paper continue. No one seems to have noticed, except, perhaps, the death-obsessed apocalypse mongers like Bailey and his kind-of-girlfriend known as Beehive for her retro hairdo and penchant for black.
He tells us their not-quite-a-love-story, from warped versions of meeting the parents, dinner parties becoming literal car crashes, to the semi-accidental beheading of a priest. Not a single alarming detail is omitted: it is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard, however, not to laugh when the gory death of Beehive’s human swastika-shaped father is caused (accidentally?) by some lesbians wielding an Antifa sticker. ’It’s the little things’, as Bailey reminds us. You are given space, sometimes too much, to indulge in your darkest fantasies, oozing with blood and the crushed skulls of EDL members.
Behind the grotesque and dizzying trash aesthetics, however, is a semantics of utter beauty. Phones spitting and sparking as they sink into rivers, raising fists to ‘the sky, to god, or to satellites’ (the unholy trinity that answers for mankind’s suffering), and a proposal that it is not death that humans are afraid of, but losing the ones we love. Fear undercuts every phrase, every laboured breath, as veins pop and hands shake. By the end, though, you understand that that’s OK. To be human is to fear. But within this crushing terror, there is beauty. You are reminded to shake your fists at ‘the sky, god, or satellites’, whilst you still have time. Humans are preoccupied with our end, our personal and species-wide apocalypse. But, Bailey proposes, what if it’s just the start? Perhaps humanity is in its infancy, not rushing towards the car crash (or orgasm) that marks its extinction. There is hope where there is fear, and fear where there is hope.
The play is carried by innovative and frequently radical use of language: words are knives, spat at high speed, you can’t lose focus for even a second. If you did, something terrible would be sure to happen. But perhaps what is the most eye-opening (as if they weren’t already pinned open) is what happens when ‘language is dead’. When the tongue runs out of ammunition, music takes over.
It is not that this symphony, rising out of the dirt, the hole, is a drying up or a slowing down. It is in some ways a rebirth, another beginning. Shadows of an orchestra cut through smoke-laden darkness, and you are both soothed and abused by a cacophony of cutting violin melodies and the dissonant crescendos of an electric guitar. There are moments where you feel it in your very bones, it is almost unbearable, the changing lights on the audience throughout tease you, asking if this was really about you? Not Bailey? It is an unexpected but entirely apt climax to one of the most vile yet virtuosic, brutalist yet beautiful plays I have ever experienced. If you’re a human with a curious body and an (even slightly) anxious mind, this tailored trip to human hell is for you. Trust me, you’ll feel better afterwards.
This Is How We Die runs from the 29th October to the 2nd November, more information here.
Featured image courtesy of Jemima Yong.