Posting some of my Edinburgh reviews, originally published by Exeunt.
I loved Revelations. The friend I saw it with did not. “Don’t you think it’s quite manipulative? Also, what gives him the right to share Sarah and Emma’s story of their pregnancy?” These are both fair criticisms. (Though, the way James Rowland tells it, he was very much part of the story too. He donated his sperm to his childhood friend Sarah and her partner Emma, and supported them throughout. And he tells us he checked with them what he included in the piece). And I do think it’s a bit weird/ ironic/ disappointing that the only lesbian story I saw at this year’s fringe was told by a straight man. But while I was inside James Rowland’s story womb those thoughts didn’t occur to me.
Manipulate is not quite the right word because it implies lack of consent or cooperation. Like a preacher (or a consummate storyteller), Rowland knows how to move an audience, in the sense of physically and emotionally taking them from one place to another. He starts off by getting us to sing a song that he wrote, saying he wants to send it to his niece for her birthday.
There is something about the collective act of singing together that unites people, forming a rabble of bedraggled fringe-goers into a congregation. A show, he tells us later, is should be structured a bit like a church service: some hymns, a sermon, prayer. This structure is an apt choice for a show in part about growing up Christian and losing one’s faith in God. Rowland is a subtle architect of feelings.
I bought the script because I want to unpick how it manages to interweave such disparate strands as a fox playing in the snow, the story of a pregnancy, friendship, Christian youth camp, and speaking in tongues, and how it works so well. But maybe what binds them all together is Rowland’s performance, how he almost doesn’t seem to be performing but talking to you like a friend he hasn’t seen for a while, the kind of friend you land up having a deep conversation with a few pints in, without realising quite how you got there or that it was going that way.
Rowland talks a lot in Revelations about pubs and theatres being secular churches. Yeah you can be cynical about it but how many other public spaces do we have left in which you can be vulnerable and share big thoughts about our shared humanity or, you know, just about life and stuff? That seems a pretty good reason to go to the theatre to me.
Hannah’s revelation (Maybe don’t read this bit if you haven’t seen the show)
Friend: Hannah, you do know Sarah and Emma aren’t real?
Friend: They’re fictional characters.
Hannah: What?! So there was no pregnancy?
Hannah: There was no baby Tom?
Hannah: So the terribly traumatic thing that happened did not have to happen because of truth to life.
Hannah: Now I feel manipulated.
Friend: It’s part of a trilogy. You didn’t see the other shows?
Friend: It’s storytelling. He plays a character called James. He does this thing with authenticity and truth.
Hannah: So, if it didn’t happen to him, why did he choose to tell this story?
Friend: That was what I said at the beginning of this review. Even if it had been true, it wouldn’t have been his story to tell because he didn’t grow a baby in his body or support a partner growing a baby in her body.
Hannah: Why does he write about lesbian pregnancy?
Friend: More interesting than the bog-standard heterosexual version I suppose.
Hannah: You’re being cynical.
Friend: Yes. You’ve changed your tune. You said you loved it.
Hannah: I’ve changed my mind.
Hannah: I trusted him. He made me feel things. I believed Sarah and Emma were real people, not characters. I grieved with them. I believed in Tom. I feel betrayed.
Friend: Doesn’t that prove that he’s a great storyteller, a, what was it you said, ‘architect of feelings’?
Hannah: I suppose.
Friend: Why should it matter if it actually happened or not if it feels true?
Hannah: It matters because he pretends it’s true and that’s a betrayal of trust. It matters because there are people who have actually had similar experiences in real life.
Friend: He says it’s not true. He says at the end stories are ‘all true when we believe them’.
Hannah: I must have missed that bit. Anyway, it’s pretty oblique.
Friend: It’s theatre, Hannah, what did you expect?
Hannah: I still feel betrayed. I feel betrayed by theatre. I’m not sure I want to have big thoughts about humanity shared with me anymore.
Friend: Am I even real?
Hannah: You’re an amalgam of people and thoughts. You’re a rhetorical device. This Hannah is a fictional character too.
Friend: How’s that different from what James Rowland is doing?
Hannah: It’s different. It just is.
Friend: You’ve got to admire his craft though.