Showmanism at Bath’s Ustinov Studio

Showmanism, on at Bath’s Ustinov Studio until 10th December,  is an exploration of the nature of stories, of theatre and of the human condition.

It starts with the words “I’m here” spoken perhaps from a speaker by a skull, and “by” Dickie Beau.

Who is Dickie Beau –surely not his real name? Google him and you won’t be any the wiser. He’s a shape-shifter and a chameleon, a mime and a mimic, an explorer and an exoticist. His solo show aims to break the “fourth wall”, that invisible barrier that separates performers from their audiences.

The first time I remember seeing an artist crash into that wall, feel his way along it, gently find a crack and prize it open as though it were a feat of extraordinary strength was seeing Ziggy Stardust, or was it Aladdin Sane? It was a discipline David Bowie had learned from Lindsay Kemp. It has lost none of its power.

Dickie Beau’s mesmerising solo show was commissioned by Deborah Warner, artistic director of the crucible that the Ustinov Studio has become. Showmanism comes at you from all angles, throwing ideas into the ether one after another after another, sometimes so fast that you can’t quite follow the lines, sometimes turning a blinding light onto something you thought you had seen before, but realise you really hadn’t.

The commission was to celebrate the history of theatre in all its forms, a big ask and a revelatory response.

The “set” has a dais, a bath, an apple tree, a spade, a typewriter, a spaceman’s helmet, an old tape recorder, a toaster, a sword (hidden), a ladder, a large trunk, a chair and more. All are used, along with a huge pop-up book that manages to explain the mysteries of the Greek amphitheatre and its acoustics.

The performer, as well as lip-syncing the words of voice coach Patsy Rodenburg, Am­erican ethnobotanist and mystic Terence McKenna, famously indiscreet actor Ian McKellen (whose recollections of Oberammergau are the heartbreak of the show), opera director Peter Sellars, Greek actress Mimi Denissi, Spitting Image impersonator Steve Nallon, drag historian Joe E Jeffries, actor Fiona Shaw, poet Ram Dass and critic, writer and teacher Rupert Christiansen, whose conversations with Beau form the skeleton of what he calls “a transubstantial pageant.”

All that is to say that the show is largely indescribable, endlessly challenging, ephemeral, memorable and completely extraordinary. You won’t have seen anything like it, but if you miss it, it will be one of those lasting theatrical regrets.


Photographs by Sarah Ainslie

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