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A CurtainUp London Review
It Felt Like A Kiss
What evolved with Felix Barrett was a triparteid performance on five floors in a disused office block in Manchester's Spinningfields area. Arrive early and then an efficient woman ensures you read the clip board, the warning that the floor surface may be uneven, that there are steps and that the show is not for those of nervous disposition (Should I leave now?) or with a heart condition or wearing anything other than sensible shoes (I got away with Birkenstocks but don't risk being turned away).
The audience walk in groups of nine (this time no masks or cloaks, and no silence) and separated at twenty minute intervals through rooms with still lifes of America in the 1950s, full of standard lamps, black and white TVs and family photographs with dummies where there would have been people. In many rooms there are books about the American Dream by Norman Mailer. Some of the rooms are whited out townscapes with neat rows of white houses with dark trees, maybe after the settling of a post holocaust dust— or maybe conveying the uniformity of white America. Whatever they are there for, they make you think. There are also offices and laboratories in some of which a silent film plays over and over again of a woman screaming, terror in her eyes. Another room is full of silver birch trees like a scene out of Chekhov.
People who have seen Punchdrunk's work before rush in to eagerly assemble clues as to what is to come. We stumble into a room where a film is playing and can take a chair for the best part of half an hour. A film about America with Kruschev and Nixon, about the CIA and the murders of JFK and Patrice Lumumba, of girls in full skirted frocks on the 1950s Prom dance floor, of chimpanzees in space, and about how Saddam Hussein came to power. We're told that the director of some of the James Bond films was employed to make a propaganda film for Saddam Hussein. We hear how ECT was used to "treat" homosexuals. The message is the unravelling of The American Dream and sure enough there is Norman Mailer being interviewed on a television programme. The music to the film is the iconic pop music of the 1950s with the killer song from Carole King, "He hit me and it felt like a kiss" a messed up message of sexuality and abuse.
There are shootings and the pictures start to break up. The advertisement for Persil talks about achievable whiteness. The origins of HIV are traced and Rock Hudson's sham marriage is exposed. The images are there of Hudson and Doris Day as the perfect Hollywood couple and later the film tells of his death from HIV. The film brings back to you the rooms you have walked through and makes you reflect on the images you saw there. This brings Curtis' film alive in a curious way, intensifying the experience.
As I thought about the disintegration of the American Dream, I thought also about England and the industrial wasteland the train had gone through on the way to Manchester, the loss of industry in the area of Staffordshire once known for its production of Wedgewood and Spode china , boot and shoe makers from Northampton, the woollen mills around Salford, disused buildings everywhere, boarded up.
It is not possible to say very much about the third part of It Felt Like a Kiss without giving away the synthesis as all audience members find themselves in their own nightmare. There are rooms where everything has been trashed and others where white coated doctors conduct experiments and mazes where you will be separated from your companions in long black tunnels. You have been told that it is important to stay together as a group of nine at this point. Are we Skinnerian rats in a behaviourist experiment learning a maze?
Fortunately for the faint hearted we have been told that red curtained doorways are the emergency exit for those who cannot take the frightening experience any longer. The Kronos Quartet plays its sonorous, sinister music but I sang snippets from the previous night's viewing of Forbidden Broadway to keep up my courage in those seemingly endless black tunnels of entrapment. I screamed at least twice and jumped out of my skin a few times. Would I recommend It Felt Like A Kiss? You Bet!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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