The circumstances in which a work is funded can play a part in defining it: not only will some ideas attract a heftier investment than others, but certain styles, genres and topics are actively sought out by the organisations producing art. Whether this can influence a whole career is up for debate, but it can certainly result in some idiosyncratic work: Kazuko Hohki’s latest performance, Incontinental, is a case in point. It’s about faecal incontinence.
Collaborating with Alastair Forbes, from University College Hospital and supported by the Wellcome Trust, Hohki, by her own admission, had no other choice but to plunge into devising a performance about what must be one of the most difficult non-life threatening conditions. The challenges of creating a piece about an issue that no one really likes discussing (for obvious reasons), and then somehow making it into a worthwhile piece of theatre are bound to have been great. The Incontinental team face up to these problems: avoiding all the obvious and cheap jokes, and instead attempting to use faeces-control as the basis for an intelligent and compassionate production.
The result is a diverse range of entertaining sketches, one which stretches from a blues song about a patient’s dream of a peaceful trip to Tesco to a parody of a continence-specific aerobics class. These interludes somehow manage to turn a very serious subject matter into a source of entertainment; the fact that they are squeezed in between verbatim sequences and scientific explanation means the piece has breadth of scope. Forbes takes part in the performance himself, supplying the medical facts and professional insight. His rather matter-of-fact delivery is balanced with documentary forum posts from one of the sufferers: an anonymous twenty-five year old mother, struggling with the limitations and humiliations the disease has brought into her life. These three main components of the performance might not always blend together perfectly from a dramaturgical point of view, but it’s obvious the team behind the show didn’t simply rely on inducing compassion in the audience.
In a medical environment, Incontinental probably has the potential to be a real treat: a niche piece, that addresses a very specific and taboo topic in an artistically accomplished way. Far from offering a magic solution and being condescending, Hohki shares her own faeces related experiences to suggest that once you leave the medicine to the doctors, all you can do is stop living in embarrassment; she suggests she would not shrug and run away at the first mention of the topic. In a performative context however the piece’s shortcoming is exactly this devoted focus to a very specific topic. While it will certainly help ‘spread the word’, and the knowledge about faecal incontinence, its ‘achievements’ will probably stop there. As wrenching, astonishing and hilarious as Incontinental is for most of its duration, it never really starts being a piece about more than a medical condition, not quite living up to its promise to be a tale of control and what it means to lose it. In doing so the production runs the danger of becoming slightly claustrophobic and perhaps too specific for some.
Incontinental was part of the Sprint Festival at Camden People’s Theatre. For more information about the festival visit CPT’s blog.