Robert Calvert at Pentameters Theatre, 28 Heath Street, London NW3 6TE

March 24, 2023 at Pentameters Theatre, 28 Heath Street, London NW3 6TE
Promoter: Pentameters Theatre

Robert Calvert is probably best known as the conceptual artist who, often in collaboration with Barney Bubbles, constructed overarching frameworks for the band Hawkwind. It was he (writing) and Barney Bubbles (artwork) who put together the Hawklog, an extended piece of writing that accompanied Hawkwind’s second album, In Search of Space, and he conceived of the Space Ritual tour as being based around the dreams of space travellers in suspended animation. Calvert also wrote the lyrics for Hawkwind’s best known songs ‘Silver Machine’ and ‘Urban Guerilla’. He took a hiatus from Hawkwind between 73 and 75 rejoining as their chief lyric writer and vocalist for the next four albums which culminated in the album 25 Years On (as Hawklords) and the accompanying booklet about Pan Transcendental Industries. However pre, during and post his involvement with Hawkwind, Calvert maintained a prodigious output releasing two books of poetry, five solo albums, a book and four plays!

One of those plays, Mirror Mirror, written in 1979 has been put on by Pentameters Theatre, between March 22-25th above the Horseshoe Pub in Hampstead. Pentameters was founded in 1968, and is still run, by Leonie Scott-Matthews, who knew Robert Calvert personally.

Mirror Mirror is a futuristic play set in 2030 that portrays a day in the life of Eleanor Bryant, who initially arrives home excited having bought a psycochromic dress that responds to her interior life with changing colours and patterns. In her apartment is a multiperspectival mirror whose various channels represent her as others perceive her.

The play revolves around the externalising of the interior life of the main character Eleanor, played by Samantha Charles who, I guess, spends 75% of the play on stage alone. The focus is initially on her ambivalent relationship with her new dress but gradually turns to her relationship with the multiperspectival mirror and her concerns over (particularly) her husband’s ‘view’ of her. Eventually she decides to call a technician to fix the mirror as she is sure there must be a fault in its representation of her husband’s image/imagination of her. 

I think it was Roland Barthes who observed that the meaning of an art piece is constructed in the interaction of the viewer with that piece, the implication being that an art piece has no stable meaning but is reinterpreted by each interaction. Mirror Mirror was written in 1979 and has probably been interpreted in many different ways in the ensuing forty years. Watching it in 2023 the play seemed to be extraordinarily relevant, foregrounding contemporary socio-cultural themes.

Samantha Charles’ nuanced performance as Eleanor explored the internalisation of objectification and the prioritising of female physicality as she struggled with the effects of age and the knowledge that her husband had married her primarily for her looks. She highlighted the anxieties generated by consumer capitalism’s demand that women attain and sustain an adherence to an always out of reach ideal and the self preoccupation this can lead to as she attempts to prove to herself her continued attractiveness via her relationship with the unfortunate technician, subtly played by Edward Smith. (Who, in a wonderful inclusion of Calvert’s ‘The Clone Poem’, best known via ‘Spirit of the Age, turns out to be a clone.)

Eleanor’s 1979 interaction with, and desire for affirmation from, others via the mirror seems remarkably prescient in 2023. The subsequent establishment of social media, our posting of selfies, our desire for ‘likes’, the oscillations in our self esteem depending on the affirmations of others, our staged presentation/s of self are all present in the play. In her adoption of recognisable poses and practices Samantha revealed the performativity of gender and the reproduction of female stereotypes in a way that was reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s work.

The twist in the last section of the play comes as a surprise and further emphasises the complexities of self presentation.

Mirror Mirror is an intriguing, engaging piece of performance art that speaks to us in 2023 about gender, relationships, consumer capitalism’s baleful effects on our self esteem and the power of social media. Samantha Charles, Edward Smith, producer Leonie Scott-Matthews and director Colin Gregory have done a brilliant job in producing a mesmerising and relevant piece of work!  

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