Psychodrama

Psychodrama by Sleepwalk Collective & Christopher Brett Bailey – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Not many theatre pieces begin with the brutal assassination of the Roadrunner (from a speeding car, with a baseball bat), nor do they include a home invasion resulting in the deaths and dismemberment of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (with a chainsaw). But not many performers have the hallucinatory genius of Christopher Brett Bailey and Sleepwalk Collective, and still fewer have the nerve to stage such an intense, terrifying and often hilarious performance. Playing only a few nights at Battersea Arts Centre as part of a tour, Psychodrama stands out in a big way and those lucky enough to catch it will wonder, in years to come, whether it can really have happened.

The audience wears headphones throughout the show, and the two performers – Bailey and iara Solana Arana – speak into microphones, addressing us as though we are a watching tv audience. Their world is television – a pre-internet version with cathode ray tubes and cartoons, where the separation between violence and entertainment becomes terminally blurred. In a series of linked sketches they delve deep into very dark and strange places, like excerpts from the world of David Lynch that have broken loose. Bailey has Eraserhead hair, while Solano is a dive bar Marie Antoinette. Announcing their intention to take up residence inside our heads, they evoke a series of increasingly disturbing scenarios, performed with cool levels turned to maximum. As well as cartoon assassinations (“Sometimes we kill for money, sometimes we kill for pleasure, sometimes we kill to eat”), the evening encompasses a particularly alarming episode with a psychotic Popeye, a staggeringly over-the-top diner sex scene, and a jukebox ballad that is Lynch through and through. Meanwhile a woman interrogates them, apparently in subtitled Russian, about their states of mind.

These scenes, often jaw dropping, risk being as cartoonish as the scenarios they explore, but they are a great deal more. The use of headphones allows a remarkable soundscape to infiltrate the minds of the audience, immersing them deeply in a world of disquiet. Bailey and Sammy Metcalfe, who designed the sound together, achieve something remarkable by conjuring a late-night, nightmare world that is both alluring and alarming, like a therapy session gone wrong. The queasy, late night atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of Chris Morris’ radio series, Blue Jam, the highest of accolades for weirdness.

Above all, the writing from Bailey, Solano and Metcalfe is remarkable, a storm of twisted cultural confusion, Americana gone very wrong. The audience watches in open mouthed glee as he tramples all over sensibilities and trigger warnings to present the things we really do not want to see, all at once. The density of the script could be too much, but the performers use neat theatrical devices – tiny effects boxes, a miniature loudhailer, unexpected inflatables – to punctuate their narratives, like cartoon exclamations. Psychodrama is an outlier: with its analogue pop culture obsessions it references a previous generation, but is all the more welcome for being made right now. Bailey and Solano effortlessly deliver the unhinged, road trip strangeness that shows such as Is God Is have recently been desperate to achieve. They seriously question the role of violence, particularly against women, in our culture without any hint of preaching. And they remind us of how stunning, unexpected the best theatre can be – rising fully formed from the minds of some seriously twisted geniuses.

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