Let’s be honest, the world right now is a little hard to manage. The political unbalance is rife, environmental disasters that are happening frequently, women continue to be denied the right to their own bodies, people struggle to survive wars and refugees are still flocking to countries that are turning them away. We’re all getting older and closer to inevitable death. With all this weighing on the shoulders of humanity, Split Britches have created their new show Unexploded Ordinances (UXO). Unexploded Ordinances explores the way that humans fear ageing and the inevitable future, and hopes to present a way of dealing with this fear. Split Britches, as an iconic lesbian-feminist theatre company, guide the audience to finding light in the tragedy that is human existence right now. In true Split Britches style, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, deliver a performance that both deconstructs the traditional conventions of theatre and connects on a very personal level with its audience.
The performance is structured around the notion of an unexploded ordinance or a UXO. A UXO is the remnants of explosive weapons, like bombs, land mines and grenades that didn’t explode when they were dropped and are still potential risks, even decades after they have been discarded. Split Britches relate this to its audience by paralleling these unexploded objects to our unexplored desires; desires that often sit just below the surface but are yet to be explored or exploded, or even discovered. Before we even entered the theatre, there was a table set up in the lobby that asked us to write our unexplored desires onto a piece of paper, screw it up and then throw it into the open suitcase acting as a bin. These papers featured towards the end of the show in offering us some touching moments of honesty from the audience members.
The foundation of the show is balanced on a willing audience. After an introduction explaining the history of the Pit theatre that explains how the Pit got its name (allegedly due to its location on top of a mass grave for those who died during the Bubonic Plague in the mid 1600’s), Weaver asks a panel of ‘elders’ to join her round the tables assembled in a circle centre stage. Using the wars of the world as historical markers, starting with the who was alive during the American Civil War beginning in 1861 (obviously no one!) she gathered the nine eldest people in the room. There was a surprising range of ages in the audience ranging from students all the way up to 83! The show was split roughly into three ‘protocols’. Protocol One being an introduction from each of the elders about themselves and any unexploded desires they wish to explore. We had Bev from London, who was thrust into the role of Secretary and asked to answer the phone and read from a scripted conversation with The General; someone who loved Dancing, someone who considered herself a worrier. Everyone is willing to share a part of themselves and this openness satisfyingly juxtaposes the severe oppressive setting of the room with its three large imposing screens and dim lighting; a structure borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s doomsday film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Unexploded Ordinances borrows several ideas and images from Dr. Strangelove. This is immediately reflected in the full title of their show displayed at the beginning of the performance; Unexploded Ordinances: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love. The simple exclusion of the words ‘the’ and ‘Bomb’ give you an insight into the inverse nature of the show in comparison to Dr. Strangelove.
The performance rejects the realism of conventional theatre and instead adopts more Brechtian techniques. They read from scripts rather than deliver rehearsed lines and this gives the performance what I consider to be a more honest relationship with its audience; we’re not asked to invest in an imaginary world but rather guided through the path they have drawn out, like a trust exercise. They highlight the time continuously throughout the performance, even asking the audience to take out their phones and set their timers to 53 minutes (the show being one hour and ten minutes) and to let it ring when it goes off. Like a good little theatre-goer, I had already switched my phone off completely when Shaw asked this of us and by the time it had restarted it was too late so sadly I couldn’t join in the ringing when 53 minutes was up. Shaw often reminds Weaver of the time, sporadically counting down the minutes left, which gives a sense of urgency to the proceedings and reminds us of our lack of control over time, despite our construction of it.
Split Britches are famous for their satirical gender-bending characters and Unexploded Ordinances uses those same theatrical methods. Peggy Shaw performs the overbearing General in her famed Butch aesthetic and Lois Weaver performs the role of Madame President who gives me Edna Mode (of The Incredibles) vibes with her severe bob haircut and dark glasses. I’m not sure if this is what they’re going for but I think the connection works, both characters demand attention and compliance and both receive it. Using the Butch/Femme performances of gender they attempt to highlight and deconstruct patriarchal gender ideologies and correct essentialist assumptions that tend to come with patriarchal ideas of masculinity. The performance of Butch and Femme explores the idea that gender is a performative act. The General is certainly a parody of masculinity, continuously assuming that he is being talked to and leaping to his feet, interrupting, expecting the person on the other end of the phone line to know who he is. Donald Trump’s overbearing arrogance comes to mind…
The final protocol, once the phones have rung and our time is up, asked the elders what we can do to help resolve these problems and fears. One elder suggests she uses her unexplored desire of flying a passenger jet, fills it with the people afraid of getting old and flies it into the White House, killing Donald Trump! Shaw finally takes the suitcase that we tossed our unexplored desires into before the show and suggests that we use them to offer creative solutions to the problems we’re facing, by prefacing them with ‘We could…’. We could… “go dancing”. We could…“go to the moon”. We could… “have sex”. We could… “be more kinky”. We could… “have sex with women (lots of people seem to be thinking about sex). And my favourite, we could… “Teach yoga to all the people in London who are stiff”, of course. Unexploded Ordnances is witty and honest, well-crafted and relatable. The performance is both urgent and patient at the same time. It recognises our short space of time to be together in the theatre but serves as a reminder that time continues beyond this moment so we should go forward offering ourselves creative solutions by exploring our own unexploded ordinances.