Before I Am Lost is Beatrice Vincent’s one woman show about the Imagist poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, or H.D, as she is better known. This play about H.D’s life and art is currently playing at the Etcetera Theatre at the Oxford Arms in Camden Town, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. In Vincent’s take on H.D’s life, we meet the writer at a particularly stressful point in her life — she is pregnant, she is married, but the child she is carrying is not her husband’s. Neither her lover nor her husband wish to claim responsibility, and H.D herself is terrified that she may not survive this pregnancy. Before I Am Lost is a direct address to H.D’s unborn child — saying all the things that are on her mind in case she does not live to say them in person. It’s an attention getting situation.
The historical Hilda Doolittle was a charismatic bisexual female artist who formed powerful relationships with both men and women, some platonic, some not. She moved in artistic circles that included Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and D.H Lawrence. Born in the United States, she moved to London as a young adult and lived in Europe for most of the remainder of her life. She did nearly die while giving birth to her second and only surviving child, but this was due to the influenza pandemic of 1918, and not complications of pregnancy or childbirth. She was a pioneer in many ways, and navigated life and art on her own terms, often despite a disapproving or appropriating male gaze.
Before I Am Lost chooses to foreground H.D’s pregnancy and her more famous male companions. This focus does H.D no favours. With this approach, the script reduces her to a woman experiencing what so many women have experienced, and is distracting in its historical inaccuracies. It makes the briefest of references to H.D’s female lover Bryher but without telling us much about her. The play does refer often to the Greek myths that predominate in H.D’s art, but they are overwhelmingly references to male gods and heroes, even if the characterisation of H.D does take on these mythic figures and cast herself in their moulds. Beatrice Vincent is a sympathetic performer, but as a writer, she has chosen a rather thin vein to mine when such riches of artistic and biographical material are available. Instead, the audience’s attention is at risk of drifting during the performance focusing on things like a lack of an American accent in Vincent’s portrayal of H.D., for example.
Before I Am Lost has the potential to be something noteworthy but this script could use more research, and work with a skilled dramaturg, to get there. H.D’s story, as a writer, a feminist, and as a pioneer of LGBT rights, deserves a memorable telling.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Brendan Walker
Before I Am Lost
Etcetera Theatre until 20th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019
“the true warmth and intricacies of his personality shine through as he laughs and bounces off his audience”
‘The Oxford Arms’, an old Victorian pub, nestled in the heart Camden market in North London, is home to the Etcetera Theatre. This is one of twenty-seven spaces hosting shows for the Camden Fringe which, in its 14th year, is showing a selection of talent ranging from comedy and improv to dance and opera. ‘Belamour’, directed by Zois Pigadas, is a non-profit, one-man show, based on true life experience and raising money for the MS Society. Boldly confrontational, the piece addresses themes of family, love and identity, wrapped up in a story about an incurable and crippling illness.
Belamour (Ewens Abid) lives in France and is of Algerian descent. Snapshots of Belamour’s story are performed in chronology: the experience of growing up on a concrete estate in Belfort, France; his mother’s glorious cooking; a brief time spent dealing drugs and then progressing fortuitously into the building trade. As life seems to be looking up for Belamour, he collides with the beautiful Monica and everything changes.
Abid, who also wrote the show, begins the production by questioning natural prejudice towards his identity. Audience response is encouraged which infuses the piece with energy. From the outset, identity is framed as the main motif. Belamour is torn between his family and starting a loving relationship in the modern world. Interestingly, the devastating illness, multiple sclerosis, although well-explained, is explored less. The character’s struggle with his illness could have been developed further.
A lifeless wooden dummy, twin to our charismatic narrator, is positioned centre stage and is used imaginatively to command the space. For example, it towers over Belamour as the concrete estate that was once his home. The grey hoodie and black joggers worn by both, cleverly enhance this scene.
The play is as much about words, language and sound as a degenerative loss of movement. Belamour speaks English, interspersed with a hybrid of Arabic and French. The languages are masterfully intertwined into the script. The audience are not spoon-fed translations which are few. However, humorous mimes accompany parts of the spoken script to ensure that nothing is lost. Light comedy precedes deeper poetry which posits strong metaphors throughout, the main one being the tragic image of a mermaid, trapped between land and sea, desperate to prove you do not need legs to run.
Sound and lighting (Stephanie Watson) elevate the action, such as the music on the dance floor and rhythmic heartbeats, as well as an ominous rendition of the ‘Mission Impossible’ soundtrack which portends Belamour’s insurmountable quest in search for truth. Lighting is used to transport us to different scenes, from the disco to the cold blue light of the moon, infusing the play with its comi-tragedy.
Ewens Abid delivers this play with incredible energy and Belamour’s tragic plight is deeply moving. He juggles multiple characters and themes but most importantly, the true warmth and intricacies of his personality shine through as he laughs and bounces off his audience. The show is proof to the astonishing feats that can be achieved by a one-man show.
Reviewed by Amy Faulkner
Photography by Nick Mauldin
Etcetera Theatre until 25th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019