Thursday, 27 November 2014

Theatre review: Chimera

A chimera is a mythological creature that combines parts of various different animals, but in medical terms it describes someone with two completely separate types of DNA. It occurs when a foetus reabsorbs its twin, too early in the pregnancy to result in conjoined twins, but too late for the surviving foetus to eliminate every trace of its sibling. So, in Deborah Stein's Chimera, which she co-created and co-directs with performer Suli Holum, Jennifer is a woman most of whom is made up of her own DNA, but a couple of organs have that of her unborn sister. Crucially, this includes her reproductive organs, which means technically her 8-year-old son is not genetically hers. The identity crisis that results from Jennifer's discovery is quite a severe one; it sees her unable to connect with the boy any more, and culminates in her leaving her family.

Holum is something of an unusual performer; most of Chimera sees her narrating the story, in an unusual accent I couldn't quite place, which sounds a bit like someone making a stab at Canadian but not quite managing it. But when she plays Jennifer or her son Brian, she uses an authentic US accent.

The show's staging, in a black-and-white kitchen full of hidden doorways and trapdoors, is interesting, and features cleverly-used video by Kate Freer and David Tennant, which is projected onto white goods, costumes, and Holum's skin itself. But the story it's telling is just too busy with ideas to be satisfying. Jennifer is herself a geneticist, and she only discovers her own condition when her son is diagnosed with a minor heart condition, and she tries to find out which parent he inherited it from. Even before she finds the answer though she seems to have started viewing Brian with a hint of disgust, his illness as a failure on her part or her husband's - among the many avenues Chimera toys with then doesn't explore, this attitude bordering on eugenics is the most troubling. The most successful parts of the show are when Holum plays a now-teenage Brian, looking back at his mother's identity crisis with a refreshing detachment and enthusiasm about his own unusual origins.

As well as the various themes of identity the play tries to deal with, it also attempts a meta-theatrical take on its own storytelling that doesn't work, partly because it's not connected satisfactorily with anything else the show is saying, partly because it's done in a clumsy, too self-referential style. It seems to be becoming a theme that American theatre can't attempt something meta-textual without disappearing up its own arse, which is surprising considering American TV is so good at it. Chimera is full of interesting elements but none of them coalesce into a focused show, and for me tonight it was overshadowed by the post-show Q&A, which featured Lord Robert Winston, the pioneering fertility doctor, geneticist and walrus. Though very prone to going off on a tangent himself (lessons learnt: don't start him on classical music unless you've got all night) he still provided more focus than the show itself, and while he declined to comment on the play he did point out one thing that put a bit of a question on the science of Stein and Holum's writing: The kind of heart murmur they've given Brian, which starts the whole DNA investigation off in the first place, is not in fact a genetic condition.

Chimera by Deborah Stein and Suli Holum is booking until the 20th of December at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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