70 min • The Paper Birds • October 6 – November 15 (various venues), 2014
Laura Macdougall reviews
The negative, formative way the media and advertising worlds represent women is constantly debated. Almost without exception, however, it is words and images that are discussed, and the impact these have on young girls (and boys) growing up in a society that is still often deeply sexist: think of the #NoMorePage3 campaign; the annual recycling of the debate on super thin supermodels; the #EverydaySexism project.
The rather wonderfully named Grace Savage is a champion beatboxer and her current solo show Blind offers a new perspective on this popular debate, because Grace’s life is ruled by sound. Throughout her childhood Savage was keenly aware of noise: what people (particularly her mother) said to her, voices she overheard (for example news broadcasts, as well as other, non-verbal sounds. A life-changing encounter while a teenager lead Savage to channel her talent for mimicry into beatboxing, a form of vocal percussion where the practitioner recreates drum beats, rhythms and other musical sounds using only their mouth, tongue, lips and voice. In Blind she investigates her relationship with the art form and uses it to demonstrate how sound can have a profound effect, not just on those growing up and how they think about themselves, but also relationships between the sexes and between generations.
Structurally, Blind, offers us both a history of beatboxing and a loosely plotted history of Savage’s own childhood in the Devon countryside. Given that many are probably unaware of beatboxing, let alone familiar with its genesis, the former is informative, but the two strands that make up the work could be more smoothly interwoven. Interestingly, Savage first appears dressed as a Victorian circus freak, because her gender and profession mark her out as different, as something to be pointed and stared at (indeed, Savage is currently one of only two women making a living from beatboxing in the UK). As the show progresses, Savage loses the hooped skirt and corset that so restrict her movement, until she is dressed in leggings, t-shirt and trainers and looks like any other young woman in her twenties. It’s an obvious metaphor for a young woman finding her voice in an oppressive society, but a no less powerful one for it.
Throughout the show Savage demonstrates her incredible talent. If you’ve never witnessed beatboxing before, you will be astounded at what the human voice can do. If you have, it’s a thrill to see one of the best practitioners at work. My only complaint is I wish there had been more. Savage uses a loop machine to stunning effect. She illustrates the different techniques, different sounds, different rhythms, sometimes building them into a story, sometimes accompanying them with music or lyrics. She encourages the audience to give it a go, her warm, engaging personality helping to loosen up any nervousness we might feel. At one point everyone in the audience has to put on a blindfold, eliminating everything in the room except for the incredible noises Savage makes, which only serves to heighten the intense aural experience of the show.
Earlier this year, playwright Nick Payne explored the misogyny of pop music lyrics in Blurred Lines at the National Theatre. Savage, too, visits similar territory, as she looks back at her teenage years that were heavily influenced by rap and hip-hop, blending some of these lyrics with the sexist, aggressive and violent comments she’s been subjected to as a result of her work. It’s an emotional sequence that reinforces just how powerful and emotive sound can be.
Blind is a show that is full of potential. The show’s message is current and vital, and it is presented in a new and interesting way. Beatboxing is a fascinating, powerful art form that continues to grow in popularity, and the blindfolded section demonstrates just how much of an impact it can have in a theatrical context. Though the show doesn’t always fully deliver – it often feels uneven and leaves you wanting a better integration of beatboxing and theatre – Savage is a talented performer with a unique method of expression. You leave wondering what she will do next.