“When you’re playing a character do you start to behave like them?” After “How do you remember all those lines” and “Why don’t you get your agent to suggest you for that Star Wars” it’s a pretty frequent question. And there’s something in it. You’re examining someone’s thought patterns and duplicating them. It’s bound to have a subtle influence on your own.
Before seeing Cosmic Trigger last night, I met up with my old friend Jethro, who’s in it. I don’t precisely remember the moment I met Jethro. It’s like we’ve always known each other. We’re very different but have similarities. We have shared roles before, and both played the same part in two iterations of a play called “Oceans of Loneliness” which, surprisingly, was not written by a 15 year old boy with too much black eye makeup. Last night, among other characters, Jethro was playing Timothy Leary in Cosmic Trigger. We met up beforehand.
Cosmic Trigger is, on paper, about the life of Robert Anton Wilson, who I quoted at the end of yesterday’s blog. It’s hard to quickly encapsulate his life and work, as it was wide ranging and frequently extremely weird. This play is an example of form mirroring content. If you’re going to tell the tale of a man who dedicated years to exploring ritual, coincidence, mysticism, joy, visionary disobedience, humanity and chaos then the tale has to have those qualities at its core.
But Cosmic Trigger is also, equally, about Ken Campbell, beloved by theatremakers in this country as an iconoclastic genius who effectively mythologised himself, and who made a 9 hour long play about Robert Anton Wilson’s work that ended up playing at The National Theatre. So it also needs to reflect his anarchic focus.
Jethro and I went for a walk while he was getting himself show ready. He was in the thought patterns of his character, Timothy Leary. It had had an effect on him. Leary was a psychologist and transhumanist maverick sage, expounding and normalising the therapeutic use of psilocybin and LSD. He was described as “The most dangerous man in America” by Nixon, and spent much of his life in prison. Since Jethro was channeling him – (There was a lot of channeling going on in that show) – it seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to tell me he had a tiny amount of a certain mushroom he’d found growing near his home. Since I was about to watch a long show about psychedelia, and since I trust his recognition, it seemed equally natural for me to ask for it and chew it up like a good boy.
Some time later, finding my way into my seat I am still capable of introducing myself to the guy next to me. This is not your usual theatre audience so he’s not awkward and nonplussed at being spoken to by a stranger. Which is just as well, as I’m wide angle by this time. I feel the need to tell him I’m a little loose on reality and why. He hugs me like a brother. “Mushies! I’m going to be one of the pips next week,” he says. “Oh. The pips. The pips?” I venture. “Yeah the pips. You know. We get birthed from the golden apple of discord and then … something happens.” “Yes. Um… Pips? er… I’ll find out.” He’s a propmaker. He’s there with his girlfriend. “I’m trying to persuade her to be Eris.” he says. She blushes. “Eris?” I say. “Yeah mate. Goddess of chaos. She sheds her Godhood. You’ll see.” And I do. Plus a lot more besides.
The show opens with a pretty much entirely naked volunteer ritualistically taking off what little she has left – the trappings of immortality – to a disembodied voice. There’s a different volunteer every night. It’s the opening of the rabbit hole. For the rest of the evening we are guided through an experience in which we deepen our understanding of the leading lights of alternative thought throughout history. Crowley, Burroughs, Leary, and Wilson cascade alongside Campbells old and new, actors playing people playing people playing actors playing people. Wilson gives birth to himself and successfully gives his daughter who is every goddess the orange doose she-they want. There are songs, and rituals and cleansings. We are challenged and comforted. We meet talking sharks and the goddess of chaos. Cthulu emerges from R’lyeh to sing karaoke to Radiohead’s Creep. There’s a naked man covered in goat’s blood. He’s having a great time. We learn not to say “I” without biting our thumb. The number 23 becomes conspicuous even by its absence. Identity is questioned, and orthodoxy, and reality. The physical theatrical space of The Cockpit is used to the extent of its possibilities, assisted by wonderful volunteers who are happy to sit in ridiculous places to make a moment beautiful. The lighting is bolder than I thought possible in this venue. The soundscape is complete and bold. There are projections and videos. Aliens and bicycling prophets cross the stage. This is a logistical nightmare made to look effortless. It’s a show built by a community as much as it’s built by Daisy Eris Campbell. But still she sits at the centre of it, caring deeply about the complete experience for the audience, joyfully pushing the boundaries, orchestrating the composite experience. Even the foyer is dressed and lit, and this show has merchandise. I catch the director in an interval saying: “They’ve put music on in the bar for the interval. Get them to switch it off. It’s ruining the atmosphere.”
This is a beautiful anarchic splat of a play, and a proper journey for the audience. It’s utterly joyful, and turns the key just when it has to. The moments of tragedy are handled just as carefully and honestly as the anarchic joy. It’s a company that’s locked into one another, caring about one another, wanting one another to do well but challenging one another as well. I never looked at my watch. I forgot I had it on. Admittedly I was enhanced. But that was perfect.
I didn’t think I’d write a theatre review on my blog but this made me want to. As with anybody who writes about theatre, this is my opinion, nothing more. It’s informed by my personality, my friendship group, my expectations my upbringing and my state of mind. All writing about art can be nothing else. But I found The Cosmic Trigger a wonderful hilarious joyful thought provoking show. Decide for yourself if you’re going to love it based on what you know of me, and go if you think you will. I can tell you that everybody stood at the end of the show I went to and applauded. I was tired from laughing and swept up with emotion. Conversely I can also tell you that the ancient lady with the crazy tree-face that spoke about The Covent Garden journal to a version of me that was desperately holding it together before the show – she left in the first interval. Art is subjective. This is art. It runs until the 27th May.