A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer
By Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel with Kirsty Housley. Complicité Associates. Directed by Kirsty Housley. Canberra Theatre Centre 28 February - 3 March, 2018; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne 7 - 18 March; Seymour Centre, Sydney 22 - 29 March.

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” wrote Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor. In A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, Bryony Kimmings leads the audience by the hand from the kingdom of the well into the kingdom of the sick in a way that’s both gentle and deceptive. Initially there’s a kind of amateur drama informality with self-effacing humour and rock songs. At this point the cancer is theoretical—viewed through books and activists’ quotes. Very gradually as the play progresses, she ramps up the emotional content as her own personal journey entwines with that of the women with cancer that she meets, until at the end, you discover you’ve been boiled like the proverbial frog: slowly and imperceptibly the temperature has increased until you’re up to your neck in a magical realist setting that has a Charlie Kaufman quality, which is only surreal because it’s so unfamiliar. She achieves this by using real people’s voices, and recreating sounds familiar to anyone who has been in a hospital, embedding her own experience not with cancer but with illness, serious and terrifying. It’s a kind of ultra-subjectivity which gives the play an incredible intimacy, not least because the people who lived it are right in front of you.

The show is crafted and structured for maximum emotional impact, but it doesn’t feel slick or polished. The mixing is a bit dodgy and the set is obviously shoestring, and the effect of this is a refreshing lack of artifice and a link back to the traditions of street political drama. Ms Kimmings wears her activist heart on her sleeve; we hear women’s stories with voices from all ages and classes and quotes from radical thinkers on the politics of illness. There’s discussion about how being a patient disempowers people, how they end up struggling with the medical system as much as the cancer itself, and poorer women are at a greater disadvantage. She debunks myths embodied in the language of cancer such as fighting, bravery and heroism.  But ultimately, the core of the story is the friendship that develops between Bryony and Lara, a young woman with Li Fraumeni Syndrome which predisposes her to repeated cancer.

In all honesty I wasn’t looking forward to this show. My mother died of an aggressive squamous cell carcinoma a couple of years ago and I thought it was going to be too close to the bone (no pun intended). But it turned out to be an extraordinary experience, both wrenching and cathartic.

Cathy Bannister

Photographer: David James McCarthy

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