26 January 2019.
Ensconced upon a big red sofa, surrounded by a ‘hareem’ of houseplants, Chanje Kunda sips white wine and traces the rocky emotional path that led her to a very personal botanical epiphany.
Efforts to channel the positive force of affirmations, yogis and good omens have failed to save Kunda from her complex feelings of stress and anxiety. Being bombarded daily by images of people “living their best lives” on social media, only makes things worse. Comparisons with her own life (broke, adrift and bringing up a son single-handed) leave her feeling low.
None of this is told from a place of self-pity, there may be moments of exasperation but Kunda’s delivery is upbeat. She deploys wit and (occasionally world-weary) wisdom with a lethal precision, and her comic timing is quite something.
The show hits a crowd-pleasing high when she catalogues her efforts to indulge in regular sex in the hope it “might take the edge off (her) existential angst”. Kunda is frank and funny in equal measure as she details a series of disastrous dates. While at times it all teeters close to becoming Carry On Chanje, the audience respond with uproarious laughter to her fears about dating a well-endowed porn actor, or the potential perils of oral sex with a man with bad teeth. Tellingly, despite all of her possible suitors being ‘hench’ or ‘buff’, with the sort of professional jobs her mother would approve of, none of them bring her joy.
The discovery of a book explaining that plants can reduce stress and increase creativity, prompts Kunda to explore the power of greenery further. She finds herself feeling soothed and nurtured in the company of her (ever-growing) collection of house plants, and time spent beneath the branches of trees and within bee-filled gardens provides space for reflection.
Inspired by a group of single women in Mexico who have given up on men and chosen to marry trees instead, Kunda decides to try courtship with plants. At this point, she lifts herself from her sofa, and the show’s final section is a glorious (and increasingly giddy) celebration of the connection she feels with foliage.
Kunda largely shares her experience in retrospect, and there is a sense of looking back from a position of comparative strength. There are though glimpses of the underlying pain that prompted her initial soul-searching – beneath a weeping willow she is prompted to recall the many tears she has shed, while the residual strength within a hacked back stump of a tree seems to serve as a hopeful symbol for her own life.
Plant Fetish‘s narrative trajectory is ultimately towards a place of positivity and self-determination. A similar process has been needed to get the show itself off the ground. Undeterred by a knock back from Arts Council England, Kunda successfully crowd-funded the production and brought director Darren Pritchard on board. In a post-show Q & A, he talked through how he had encouraged Kunda to keep the show stripped back and simple. The enthusiastic audience response, with several people commenting that it already feels like a fully formed production, would suggest that this was the right move.
Kunda showcased an experimental durational version of Plant Fetish at last year’s Emergency with an interactive element that enabled participants to experience moments of plant-focused peacefulness themselves. Personally, I slightly missed that aspect within the new format but such an approach would be difficult to recreate in a more traditional performance space. However, Pritchard’s desire to see the show staged in places such as palm houses and winter gardens, could add an interesting and more immersive dimension.
In its current incarnation, Plant Fetish‘s bawdy humour seems to have little trouble seeing the wood within the trees, and the show generates a joyful energy. Yet it’s also a timely and empowering tale of the benefits of embracing foliage over FOMO, the beauty that can be found within imperfection and the transformative power of nature.
Plant Fetish is a work in progress. The above are some first impressions and an appreciation of what was shared at PUSH Festival 2019, and not a review.
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