Combining monologue and dance, Caroline Bowditch’s Falling in Love with Frida is a passionate reclamation of Frida Kahlo as a disabled artist and a reflection on how we are remembered by others. Victoria Wright reviews a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 7th September 2014 as part of the Unlimited Festival.
"I know you so well.
I know the things you like to eat,
The clothes that hang inside your wardrobe,
I know where you sleep, the music you lay down to.
I've sat in your garden and at your table.
I know you left your mark on everything, including their hearts.
They all fell in love with you.
I've never met you, but I've done it too."
Performed in an intimate and enclosed space within the main stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the stage is decorated with a table, three chairs and neon lit cacti. As the audience enters, Bowditch is lying on the table looking into a handheld mirror. ‘Is she looking at us in the mirror?’ whispered an audience member behind me before the show started.
Indeed, this is a piece where the performers get to gaze as intently at the audience as we do of them. Throughout the piece, Bowditch moves her wheelchair around the space, looking into our faces, inviting us to join her, whether that be through accepting the offer of a shot of tequila (‘To Frida!’ we all cheered as we knocked it back) or being offered a bite of juicy watermelon. This is not a bland show for those who prefer to sit quietly at the back.
Wearing Mexican inspired dresses, Bowditch is joined on stage by the wonderful dancers Nicole Guarino and Welly O'Brien (known for her work with Candoco), and the mischievously expressive BSL interpreter Yvonne Strain (rocking magnificent pigtails), who is so successfully integrated into the show that she becomes a performer in her own right.
Credit, too, must go to the composer danbeats for his beautifully melodic and Mexican influenced soundtrack, which I’m still humming as type.
In Falling in Love with Frida, Bowditch draws parallels between her own life as a disabled artist with Frida’s. “I know you tried to drown your sorrows” Bowditch sympathises. “But the damn things learnt how to swim!”
In one scene, she talks about the accident which led to Frida becoming disabled, recounting the list that Frida herself had made of her injuries. Later, an audio recording of Bowditch’s voice lists over and over the incidents in her own life that lead to Bowditch, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, breaking her bones (‘Sat on by my brother, colliding with a fast walking Italian…’). “These are the stories in and of my bones” she reflects. Not only does Bowditch empathise with Frida’s own struggles, it is clear that she draws much strength from them too.
Despite the serious nature of the piece, it is full of humour throughout, and particularly in the delightful scene where all four performers sit around the table eating watermelon. It was so unexpectedly riveting that not only could you hear a pin drop, but you could also hear every deliciously wet slurp.
In another scene, Bowditch wryly recalls how she once attended the Little People of America convention in Los Angeles, assuming it would be the one place she would be average - only to find herself unexpectedly seduced by 5 foot 8 Nebraskan security guard called Susan.
Frida Kahlo, too, loved women. And it is through these parallels that the dances sequences intertwine. Performed with grace and sensuality by Bowditch, Guarino and O’Brien, these sequences encapsulated for me the tightrope that our bodies tentatively balance on every day between pleasure and pain, strength and weakness. Sometimes we rise up. Sometimes we fall. Life and love requires both.
“How do we ever know what we’re leaving in our wake?” Bowditch asks. We hear an audio message left by a woman who, after recognising Bowditch on television, remembers seeing her as a young child having an x-ray taken at the surgery she worked at. She tells Bowditch “You were a special kid and still have that infectious smile”. It is a moving reflection on the quiet impact we have on others.
Falling in Love with Frida is a sensual, funny and haunting piece of work. I raise a glass of tequila to you Caroline. You have certainly left your mark.