Like Me, a Mongrel Mouth production directed by Duncan Maurice, is strange. Grotesque. Unnerving. Disorienting. Confronting. And it’s all around me.
The action plays out in eight rooms of Merchants House in The Rocks. The context: a group of narcissistic patients has taken over a derelict treatment centre. We spectators are visitors to this centre, active participants rather than audience members sitting anonymously in the dark. I feel really, really exposed.
We find rooms littered with piles of computer innards, broken screens, keyboards unattached to anything. Festooning the walls are cables, fairy lights, and something wispy that could be cobwebs. (Gemma O’Nions designed the set.)
Music plays through the rooms. I notice it at first, enjoy it, then it melds into the overall mayhem. (Musical director: David Herrero.) The narcissists speak with great intensity. They crowd into my personal space. Their faces are fantastically made up in green, blue, yellow, with spots and sequins. They are dressed in hooded onesies, each a different colour, and each deformed by some kind of body-modifying addition. (Costumes, hair and makeup by Alex PF Jackson.)
Just as the piles of computer waste provides a critique of rampant consumerism, these modifications embody excess of various kinds. Dressed in red, Poppy (Latisha Owens) has wild shredded-newpaper hair, enormously enhanced breasts and exaggerated hips. Cody, in yellow (Sharon Zeeman), has a big butt covered with large brown dots. The man dressed in orange—whose name I didn’t catch—has a multicoloured penis that looks suspiciously as if it were made from a very large sock.
These bodily exaggerations display the object of the individual’s obsessive self-regard. We see their sickness, which makes them simultaneously disgusting and vulnerable. And fascinating. Is it acceptable for me to stare?
Some audience members are told to hold “babies”—bundles of electronic cables wrapped up in rags. I am moved by how gently the audience members cradle these inert, non-human clumps of waste, even tenderly rocking them. At various times a sort of repeated ritual reaches a crescendo in the main room, sending all the cast members into orgasmic twitching. Is it pleasure or pain? Do they need help?
But the babble-language is difficult to understand. I catch only a word here and there. We are asked to find various things. We are asked to prevent something bad from happening.
What do they want? What should I do?
I badly want to help, and the strain of incomprehension makes me panic. I am embarrassed that I can’t understand, and simultaneously want to protect these people/creatures from the embarrassment of not being understood. The social interaction seems doomed. I feel guilty. But when Poppy or Cody command that I come into a particular room, I am irrationally happy to be chosen. They like me!
Towards the end we are marshalled into one room, the cast assembling there too. They grow sleepy and curl up on the piles of rubbish. Poppy tells us to pat them, stroke them. We do. Oh. They’re just like children.
By now, audience members have bonded with each other—we have exchanged many alarmed or amused looks or comments through the evening—and we somehow want the best for the curled-up narcissists. As someone said to me afterwards: “The patting was my favourite part.” After the craziness, it all comes down to this: soothing a sleeping ego-figure.
I leave, surprised at some of my own reactions and grateful for these insights. In spite of its unrelenting weirdness, I found the experience moving and deeply human, and it will remain with me for a long time.