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For writer and performer Bryony Kimmings, A Pacifist's Guide was supposed to be just that – a guide, something to help people undergoing cancer treatment and those who loved them. But over the course of the show, we can see that might just be an impossible task for her and the other performers – a brilliant ensemble of women who gamely traverse the Kingdom of the Sick and the Kingdom of the Well, using feminist theory from the likes of Audre Lorde, real recorded interviews with cancer patients and of course, catchy pop songs. They deal with the realities of the cancer experience – judgement, mundane treatment cycles and the dreaded "cancer face". It looks at the way we view cancer as a battle, and how even the most optimistic of people can be exhausted by the pressure to "stay positive" when sometimes all you want to do is scream.
A Pacifist's Guide feels almost like experiencing the making of a musical, rather than watching a finished piece. As Kimmings takes the stage to introduce herself just before the lights dim, she immediately positions the show as a work in progress, from the depiction of the meetings she held to get the show off the ground, to the ever-evolving mind-map she and the other performers create on stage. It may not have been what you were expecting when you decided to go see a show about cancer, but that's what Kimmings does best – bringing the audience into her process and breaking down the barriers between the work you're seeing onstage and the real people whose lives are at the centre of it.
The show is messy and scrappy in many ways, but it also revels in those qualities – this is theatre that loves theatre; that chooses to forgo character portraits by focusing on the real people breathing in the air of the Malthouse. A Pacifist's Guide is like a scrapbook or a patchwork quilt. At many times it feels like a love letter to the process of making theatre and to the women who built this play – the women that Kimmings met in the process, whose words she recorded, researched or amplified. By the end of the performance, all artifice is stripped away – the actors are side of stage, there to support and share the space with the two women at the centre, passing tissues and water when needed. To go into too much detail would spoil the experience, but rest assured you will need tissues and smudge-proof mascara.