Six survivors of prolonged physical and psychological violence top up your cider cup, compliment you on your jacket and check you know how to play pass-the-parcel. Smack That (a conversation)‘s atmosphere – ingenuous, convivial, kind – is disconcerting at first. But then it makes total sense. A ‘pity party’, this ain’t.
Rhiannon Faith’s heuristic, tricksy and – despite its brightly coloured balloons – valiantly unembellished dance-theatre piece raises awareness both about the prevalence and routes out of domestic abuse, and celebrates the resilience of those who manage to escape it.
The performers (half of whom are professional dancers, all of whom have survived sustained abuse themselves) hurl themselves at the floor, pick each other off and repeat. Purposefully messy, visceral and occasionally electrifying movement sequences are combined with moments of verbatim text – interviews with anonymous women – and participatory theatre elements to unpack and destabilise the taboo of remaining silent about what happens behind closed doors.
Gut-wrenching statistics about the failure of Downing Street to give systematic coercion the attention equivalent to its ubiquity are interwoven with text- and movement-based accounts, and carefully positioned ‘party games’ (all as slippery as the next) begin to open up the ‘conversation’ to include ourselves. What’s impressive, and irrefutably important, is that the audience know exactly what they are letting themselves in for when these participatory segments begin.
There’s no trickery or unsavoury manipulation involved in how the Never Have I Ever questions gradually transition from ‘shat myself after drinking’ to ‘woke up with a man inside me’. It’s inevitable that they are going to do so, otherwise what would be the point? But the preceding questions set the scene for people to feel capable – and free from judgement – to admit some of the latter both to themselves and a room of strangers, if it so applies to them.
Another smart moment involves the audience opening ‘presents’ in unison. We’re instructed not to analyse what comes out of the box – but just shove everything in our pockets and move on. Of course, what we’re left with – when we get home and remember that moment of the show – is practical, no-nonsense information about your options if experiencing domestic abuse, in any of its forms, ourselves. Smack That (a conversation) of course cares about the art too, I’m sure (because it’s been crafted too well for them to not), but endeavours like this – plus the on-site psychologist available during and after the performance plus the company’s legacy project to encourage venues to become part of the J9 initiative – turn it into far more than a dance-theatre piece. This is performance not just with a real heart and an ambition to change (and create) the conversation, but also solutions as to how we should do it. Recommended.