Hell’s Half Acre was a mixed media installation presented by…
Bravado is a show by the artist Scottee. It’s a memoir of working class masculinity from 1991 to 1999.
I’ve known Scottee since he was a teenager, when he hit the London club scene as one half of Yr Mum Ya Dad. His discipline has evolved over the years and his work is always a wonder to witness. He boasts a fuck-you lack of vanity, embracing the grotesque, milking self-loathing and then letting it sour in the minds of his audience. That he does this with a showbiz grin or drag de Dada, makes it all the more punchy. We’ve worked together a couple of times and he’s hilarious company, a consummate professional and an awesome talent.
I booked tickets for his Bravado show at Camden Peoples Theatre with curious anticipation. Scottee’s chubby effeminacy left him oppressed and ostracised while growing up. Ironically, the gay scene wasn’t an entirely loving sanctuary either, once he escaped the trials of home.
His angry drag, strident activism and music hall camp has often proved rather unsettling for some quarters of the LGBT ‘community’.
Perhaps that needs clarification; Scottee is a fabulous artistic irritant to the men that value masculinity over sanity, sex over politics and hierarchy above everything. While puncturing that butch balloon, Scottee’s also happy to stab at the racism and misogyny found lurking in some ashtrays of the drag scene. He was, and continues to be a damn welcome court jester, happy to skewer the privileged queens.
Rage fuels much of his work, but a witty approach tends to leave you haunted, not irked. Yet his righteous fury seems absent in person. In private, he’ll breezily scoff at macho posturing like it’s a pathetic joke. Except we know it isn’t. Patriarchy is not a joke. And it isn’t funny.
It was a full house and the stage manager announced to the audience that a volunteer would be required. Nobody offered. She asked again. The silence was tense, seemingly lengthy and still, nobody waved a willing limb. Then, my hand went up.
‘How hard could it be?’ I thought, hoping my support would not only be fun, but speed up proceedings. I was taken aside and instructions were whispered. Foolishly, my imagined theatrical support was akin to a magician’s assistant. Debbie McGee to Paul Daniels or Scrappy to Scooby Doo. I’d pictured a fleeting step into the limelight before returning to the cosy darkness, seating and wine. Except, the job at hand proved much bigger and far deeper.
Fight or flight
Every night a volunteer is asked to stand in front of the mic and read Scottee’s script from a teleprompter. From the offset, all participants are warned that the material may be triggering for some, as it documents abuse.
Slowly, it dawned on my galloping brain – Scottee wasn’t going to be in the show. The show was going to be me, reading his memoir of a north London childhood to the assembled audience.
It became clear with nuclear impact, that this wasn’t gonna be jolly and the weight of responsibility became multi-tiered and complex. I didn’t want to let Scottee down, nor disappoint the assembled audience. It helped, possibly, that the material has a grim familiarity. Scottee grew up on a council estate, part of an Irish family ruled by booze and violent chaos.
My family is Irish. I was raised in social housing. Violence and alcohol prompted my family’s emigration from Ireland to London. By all accounts, it was a life or death transfer. Oh, and like Scottee, I’m attracted to men, fuckwits that they are.
It was a challenge to know how to pitch the script appearing in VHS-ish digital form on the screen before me. My purpose wasn’t to dazzle, but to share Scottee’s story. I made a conscious decision to read clearly, without drama and to find and inhabit his rhythm.
A weird, almost professional calm descended. It was just me, the teleprompter, Scottee’s story and my imagination. When he lost a fight because he didn’t know how to punch, I was there. It was me. When he attempted to kiss his abuser, but was denied romance or control. I was there. It was me.
When he grew up, fled and flourished, I did too. When he still dreamed of killing his bullies, the dream was shared. Hating them, but desiring them? It was me. The cuts are deep and hard to heal. They’re mine too.
Not a musical
The show is divided into three ‘acts’ with an Oasis song played between each excerpt. The instructions encouraged the narrator to sing along if they wished. I can’t sing, don’t like Oasis and didn’t want to turn this dark episode into Lidl does Pop Idol. I didn’t even sway to the blokey Brit pop, but I clocked a few in the audience who couldn’t help themselves.
After the performance, a stage manager guided to me to a private room for a chat. I asked her,
‘Is this the live version of- if you’ve been affected by issues in this broadcast, here are some numbers to call?’
It was. Thankfully, I wasn’t traumatised by the experience, but transformed in an indefinable way. I’d accidentally stumbled into somebody’s pain and shared it with strangers by making it my own. The audience wasn’t entirely strange. I was there with my partner. There was an ex-boyfriend in the audience and a couple of friends. This only added to the oddity. What had they thought, watching me read Scottee’s graphic flashbacks, with its litany of blood, spunk and bile? Could they tell, could they read me, when the text struck a nerve? Did it speak to them too?
Descent of man
Bravado is a bold concept. It’s an artistic howl, a cabaret of revenge, an evolving poem of grief that’s unique at every performance. Each volunteer who voices Scottee’s story will bring another angle and invoke another tone. The power of the piece is that whoever takes the mic, the story stays the same. Abuse, physical or mental leaves lasting scars.
Men are usually the perpetrators, but also the victims and its inevitable cycle runs the world. Bullied kids turn on themselves. Drinkers beget addicts, punchers produce fighters and anger swells in the damaged hearts of survivors. Bravado hits you with this sick set up, then spits you into the night to ponder your part in the circus.
Bravado is at Colchester Arts Centre, March 29th