Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: 'Cosmic Trigger' at the Cockpit Theatre, 4th May 2017

Cosmic Trigger reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

Thus far, 2017 is a grey, chilly void. May is here but the darling buds are nowhere to be found: cemented over by unseasonally frozen winds, deprived of energy by a slate grey prison of an overcast sky, and trampled on by huddled masses who can't believe they're still having to put a fucking scarf on to go to the shops. 

Not to mention that (based on all current polling predictions) it seems as if this miserable May is here for the foreseeable future, presiding over a spiteful country hellbent on flushing itself down the economic, political, and humanitarian plughole. We're staring down the barrel of a shitty future and the present ain't too hot either.

All this makes me deeply appreciative of Cosmic Trigger, the theatrical equivalent of someone pounding a syringe of adrenaline into my gloomy heart. It's a primary coloured explosion of optimism and intelligence, delivered with sincere joy and a sincere love of humanity. 

Ostensibly an adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson's loose autobiography Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, Daisy Eris Campbell's play winds and curls through Wilson's text like a worm munching through an apple, chronicling the intellectual and spiritual evolution of seminal counterculture author Robert Anton Wilson (Oliver Senton), whose seminal conspiracy adventure books The Illuminatus! Trilogy (co-authored with Robert Shea) have subtly woven themselves into the popular consciousness. 

We first meet him as editor of the Playboy forum advice column, a position which brings him into contact with heavy hitters like William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and Kerry Thornley (among others). The psychedelic culture propels him towards an esoteric magickal and political awakening via Crowleyian occultism, a process which alters his brain, causing him to reject the concept of objective truth.

But that's just the bleached skeleton of Cosmic Trigger - and it's the flesh surrounding it that's oh-so-juicy. This is a night that opens with a striptease from a goddess, features a man wildly fucking a giant inflatable apple, has a hovering shark swimming across the stage, cunnilingus on a female Stretch Armstrong, and... well. I could go on, but it'd be a sin to spoil the night's many delights. This one show has more interesting stuff going on than a whole season of other plays, each scene coming complete with its own idiosyncratic pleasures - be they dramatic, visual, or musical.

Whether we're in 1950s New Orleans, a mushroom party for magicians and technocrats, backstage at a Liverpool theatre, within a vast secret submarine or the cosmic depths Wilson's mind, the show keeps a firm hand on the thematic tiller. As far as I can see this is primarily because Cosmic Trigger's playwright has a supremely confident grasp on Robert Anton Wilson's philosophies. Then again, given that the playwright was apparently conceived backstage during Ken Campbell's groundbreaking 70s theatrical adaptation of Illuminatus!, if anyone's going to successfully map out this tangled territory it's her.

The play is composed of many tangled threads which eventually braid together into an exaltation of Wilson's optimistic conclusions: that social, sexual, and psychological limitations are largely imposed from within, that humanity has the ability to shed restrictive dogmas and ideology, and that reality is exceptionally mutable. Having this lesson taught so vividly made me feel like a drowning man finally thrusting his head up from the depths to gulp a full lungful of air. 

I originally came at Wilson via a meandering trajectory that began watching The X-Files as a kid, which led me to The Fortean Times, which in turn led me to many of my all time cultural icons: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Morris, Alan Moore (whose unmistakable voice and face appears throughout Cosmic Trigger), Grant Morrison (specifically The Invisibles) and to Wilson himself, whose writing blew my (at the time somewhat chemically addled) mind. 

Cosmic Trigger combines this panoply of influences into a singular experience - a distillation of mental rebellion against a system that damn near everyone realises is completely fucked, yet ticks along because nobody can think of anything better. For brief moments, this play allows us to imagine that 'anything better', the Cockpit Theatre all-too--briefly becoming a glimmering bubble of illumination amidst the miles of beaten down concrete.

There are times when you sense that Cosmic Trigger is merely the latest ripple in a ritual that's been gradually unfolding for generations - a throughline that began at Crowley and wound through the 60s counterculture, passing authors like Burroughs, Wilson, Dick, and Moore, through Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, the music of the KLF, and finally, tonight, to the Cockpit Theatre. The play bears this cultural weight with grace and style.

Perhaps this isn't the most objective of reviews - I went in a fan of Robert Anton Wilson and, let's face it, any play that features Alan Moore as a supercomputer called FUCKUP is going to be hard for me to resist - but this  was one of the most enjoyable, uplifting and entertaining plays I've seen in quite some time. The cast are all fantastic, the stagecraft is phenomenal, and the writing is sensitive, witty and (when it needs to be) outright heartbreaking. Cosmic Trigger is a real triumph of theatre: boisterously beating back the grey, dystopian miseries of Trump, Brexit and allllllll the rest. 

Cosmic Trigger is at the Cockpit Theatre until 27th May 2017. Tickets here. 

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