Review Behind the Label, Theatre Vs Oppresion, Wales Millenium Centre by Lois Arcari

Behind The Label is a theatre project created by people who have experienced homelessness, abuse and addiction, of the most harrowing kinds. It’s not dour or preachy in the slightest.

Being tucked away in a small theatre, wondering how to describe this performance, was a jarring experience. It shows the very best of what theatre can do – but the message of the show should spill into the streets, onto our ballots.

Set on ‘EasyInject’ airlines, the host and hostess provide great visual gags and wordplay to set the scene, even if the framing device seems a bit hollow to contain the meat of the performance. The videos of the performers before and after the monologues and dialogues were engaging, adding new layers to the show as it transcended from fiction, to documentary, to spoken word.

The concept allowed for a brilliant Britney Spears parody, which had the audience in raptures of laughter. The metaphor of ‘baggage collection’ could have been bluntly done, and there were a few times the execution faltered, but the concept was mostly pulled off very well.

The simplicity of the idea really honed the performers vulnerability and range, the performers themselves were simply stunning. Every performer’s story was told through a scathingly honest lens, with hope and horror in equal measure. Their stories covered everything from domestic violence, to racism and alcoholism all with disarmingly charming morbid humour. All of the performers were the picture of courage throughout the show, flitting between their toughest personas and their most extreme vulnerabilities.

A few performers seemed like leaves every minute they were on stage, constantly shaking but with strong voices that carried the story of their lives throughout every corner of the building. It was impressive that the narrative of the play covered their failures and false starts as well as their hopes for the future and didn’t patronise anyone by pretending there are easy endings.

For the 2-hour run time, the theatre was transformed into a pulsing community. Where perfume and programmes mixed with old friends of the performers. Where I was genuinely charmed by the woman behind my seat, chanting words of love and solidarity to the people she recognised on stage.

Being tasked with this review made me feel quietly queasy. How can I review the ways performers package and unwrap their trauma? The empathy that pulsed throughout the audience.

‘‘Bring out Ozzy’, Ozzy, one of the performers, who has worked with this theatre group for years, seethed during one of his monologues.

While art is undoubtedly a healing force, at what point does expression move into exploitation?

I have nothing but the upmost respect for TVO, the theatre company who created this fantastic show.

Every performer said that the company had changed their life for the better, and it’s clear to see everyone behind it puts in an extraordinary amount of work to make this a genuinely empowering and well supported experience. But does all art about homelessness adhere to this standard of excellence?

I found myself asking such questions even more when the audience trailed out. I heard many say some variation of ‘that reminded me of me…’ as there was something relatable in each performers story.

When does identifying with something become co-opting it?

We have all felt isolated, estranged, angry, turned to ‘bad coping mechanisms’ because they are the only things that can drag us through the moment.

But we have not all slept in shop fronts, robbed or been robbed, held at the fists of appalling violence.

There were undoubtedly homeless people in the audience, people who had been homeless, and at risk of homelessness, along with the privileged. How is it that some people, with the same circumstances, can be homed and others left out on homeless through no fault of character or choices?

This show did everything theatre is meant for. Provoke questions. Stoke empathy. And amplify the voices of those we need to hear the most. The performers in this show, and their peers on the streets, have always had voices.

Let’s hope one day it doesn’t take shows like these, however wonderfully they are pulled off, for us to listen.

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