Shame by John Berkavitch

shame– reviewed by James Webster

Shame is a highly ambitious and well-realised multi-disciplinary show. Created by John Berkavitch, this genre-bending show blends theatre, spoken word, hip hop, physical theatre, music and animation into a dizzying and highly accomplished performance.

It begins with Berkavitch asking the audience the question ‘what are you most ashamed of’, before he’s dragged into his own memories by a cast of dancers wielding surprisingly threatening umbrellas. What follows is a collection of his own shameful anecdotes, hopping pleasantly through time, weaving the stories together in an enjoyably non-linear fashion, allowing each strand of the show to shed light on the others. Each story is told by John, while the cast of performers become either set or other characters as the show requires, and music and projection help to set and ground each scene.

The stories are well constructed, clearly told, and hold the audience’s interest brilliantly. There’s a good mix of content and tone, from childhood nostalgia and sibling bickering, to adult romantic frustration and teenage tales of graffiti and violence. The stories come together well, demonstrating a great sense of humour in the words and physicality, while building to intriguing and occasionally surprising conclusions. A little too often, though, the ending seem telegraphed, which slightly undermines the drama of the piece (this is possibly an unfair criticism as the stories are all true, but it felt like more could have been done to either heighten the tension of an unavoidable outcome, or to obscure the stories’ direction and keep the audience guessing).

Still, Berkavitch summons a great deal of feeling, drawing his scenes well in these tightly-written tales, evoking superb drama and empathy from these fraught and emotionally rich situations. For a spoken word show, I was a touch surprised the language itself wasn’t richer or more intricate, but there are some very powerful turns of phrase and each scene is crafted with a great deal of care and skill. But it still seemed to lack the moments of surprising genius that make you see the world in a new way, which the best spoken word always does so well.

The show’s biggest strength is the ingenious mix of disciplines, breakdance becomes an apt metaphor for the show’s struggles, the soundtrack adds a layer of depth, projected animation immerse you in the show’s world, and the bending bodies of the cast become a mix of different objects and locales. This is demonstrated best in the coffee-shop scenes where the cast make for a hilarious coffee-maker, whirring and grunting and chugging away with great effect, or in the graffiti scenes, where the cast’s easy comraderie summons up the blusterous fun of adolescence and animation gives an extra glimpse into their attempts at street art.

This mix of disciplines is also the show’s greatest weakness. The dance can distract from the story, coming in a points that hinder the pace and meaning of the show, seeming almost tacked on in places. The projection devolves into randomly projected patches of light that don’t add anything and confuse the storytelling. The music doesn’t always mesh and comes across as more soundtrack than soundscape; it’s just not embedded into the fabric of the show and occasionally seems incidental to the tale being told. And the often superb physical theatre can be a touch clunky.

The direct address to the audience at the start isn’t really dealt with, either, which feels like a lost opportunity. It feels like there’s an attempt at a dialogue with the audience, a sharing of shame, that gets a bit lost in the show’s ambitious, polymath performance.

This show is still well worth seeing for the heartfelt tales it told with genre-defying ambition and daring, and the occasionally messy nature can be easily overlooked for the sheer brilliance of the moments when everything came together.

Star Rating: 3/5

Shame is in the Underbelly’s Big Belly (venue 61) until 24th August at 8.50pm. Tickets here.