Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: 'The Girl With Glitter In Her Eye' at The Bunker, 13th January 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

What does it mean for something to be 'your' story? Writer/director Masha Kevinovna and OPIA Collective's The Girl With Glitter In Her Eye attempts to answer that, understand what appropriation is and explain why it's such a hot button issue. 

The plot follows Helen (Modupe Salu), a young British artist struggling to break through into the professional art world, and her best friend Philomela (Anna Macka), who is trying to make her small coffee shop a success. The pair have been friends since childhood, and the play quickly cements them as people who know each other inside out.

But trouble is brewing alongside the coffee. Helen's work (an apparently beautiful kaleidoscopic picture inspired by a schoolfriend getting glitter in her eye) has been deemed 'too nice' by art director Helen (Naomi Gardener). She tells Helen that someone with her background should create something with a bit more bite: a zero-subtlety implication that a young black woman must have a miserable past she can draw from. Helen doesn't, but Philomela does. 

Meanwhile, Philomela is looking for something unique to push her cafe over the edge and decides that plantains are the key. Helen bristles at her friend using a food associated with her cultural heritage for commercial reasons, gritting her teeth as she listens to her blithely talk about how popular they are. So, we have two friends - one poised to exploit the other's past trauma and the other stealing her cultural cuisine.

The set-up that allows Kevinovna to get to grips with what it means to 'appropriate' something. This is primarily shown through Helen grappling with her conscience as she turns her friend's misery into a piece of art, knowing she's only doing it for a career boost. It's a difficult ethical nut to crack: surely artists cannot only be expected to create work based things they have personally experienced? And anyway, putting yourself in another's shoes is the bedrock of empathy, and art could always use more of that. But how much does an artist owe their inspiration?

It's a question that echoes out beyond the plot and into almost every piece of media we consume. For example, how are we in the audience to know that The Girl with Glitter in Her Eye isn't appropriating someone's trauma to tell its own story? Kevinovna picks at this knot throughout the play, though there's ultimately there's no untangling of it. If there is a lesson to be learned, it's to not to see the lives around you as sources of inspiration to be siphoned. Where the precise line falls between empathy and appropriation is up to you.

But while there are no easy answers, the questions make for a pretty neat play. Salu, Macka and Gardener are all excellent. Salu nails the conflict between guilt and ambition, fleshing out Helen without the play simply telling us what she's feeling. Macka compliments her performance brilliantly, her eyes flashing with hurt as she realises what her friend has done. And while Gardener doesn't have a main role in the plot, she's a striking physical presence on stage.

The one thing I don't think works particularly well is the wraparound classical elements. At the beginning of the show (and at a couple of points throughout) the three women play the Furies via some interpretative dance. Perhaps I'm missing something, but all this stuff felt like an unnecessary layer of artifice on top of Helen and Philomela's story. 

Given that The Girl with Glitter in Her Eye is a brief n' breezy hour of drama, the time spent on these classical allusions would have been better used on the main characters. Plus, this is an easily relatable story and gussying it up with references to ancient Greek theatre can only make it less accessible.

But hey, it's good stuff and I'm all for shows that pack a lot into a short run-time and don't mess around. The ethical quandary's about appropriating others' stories remain as the curtain falls, but the show should give anyone attending a lot to chew on.

The Girl with Glitter in Her Eye is at the Bunker Theatre until 27 January. Tickets here.

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