2223 Words on Daisy Campbell’s Adaptation of
Robert Anton Wilson’s COSMIC TRIGGER
Love and Will Productions, Cockpit Theatre, London
May 6TH 2017
What are plays for? As far as the mainstream is concerned, the answer to that is simply to serve the egos of whatever celebrity glazed actor is participating in them at the current time. But the truth when it is revealed and indeed searched for – one of the themes of the already seminal and vital production under review – is that plays are there to challenge, entertain and illuminate, both those in attendance, as well as those in it. Daisy Campbell’s theatrical adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger is one of this theatrical and counter cultural dynamo’s ongoing epic projects, and this current incarnation at Dave Wybrow’s Cockpit Theatre, off London’s Edgware Road, is a truly divine lesson not only in theatrical reformation but on the nature of reality itself.
Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger books started out as examinations of the conspiracies and phenomena informing his seminal Illuminatus trilogy written with Robert Shea in 1969 and not published until 1975, and then broadened to encompass events and aspects of the remarkable experiences he and his poet wife Arlen and children, most notably Luna Wilson (exquisitely played by the multi talented Dixie McDevitt) shared, amidst changing fortunes and emotional states, from the time of Illuminatus’ conception right up to the Wilson’s death in 2007. Campbell’s play therefore acts as both a living and vital biography of the events leading up to the writing off the books as well as a stunning series of reconstructions of those experiences, both magical, chemical and profound.
The play opens with a depiction of the Goddess Ishtar succumbing to the forces of oncoming darkness, accompanied by the ominous voice overtones of Satan/representational dark overlord of all conspiracies and manipulations FUCKUP, wondrously voiced by your very own master of the arts, both dark and imagined, Alan Moore. Represented by an exquisitely beautiful naked woman on the night I watched, Ishtar passes through the seven gates of perception before being efficiently captured by a herd of grotesque succubi, drawing her back into a lushly curtained vaginal void, the source of a series of dramatic entrances, exits and birthings that occur throughout the play. This sensual gateway allows for the organic nature of the play to spring forth, as the fictional and the fantastic arrive and seamlessly combine. The way the play has been designed and thought through is extraordinary. One enjoys a series of spectacles and theatrical innovations, such as a bird’s eye view of a tarot reading (which I was able to glimpse through the prism of an onstage make up mirror frame), a faultless depiction of an LSD trip, courtesy of a jiggering actor and the passing figure of Albert Hoffman on a bicycle, a demonic ritual of rape and rebirth and the playful exhortation of a giant golden apple, along with monologues that encumber the brain as much as they loosen the heart. It is a sensual overload that has been masterfully driven. The balance with which things arrive is faultlessly judged, with information, exposition and image guiding us at just the right time and thereby enabling us to appreciate and experience all that we are asked to take on.
As a stage director and visualist, Daisy Campbell uses this unique theatre supremely well, utilising each entrance and level, and making this a total theatre experience in the truest sense of the word and image. She proves that there is really no-one else like her, and as Ken Campbell’s daughter that is how it should be. The product of Prunella Gee, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses of her generation and of Ken Campbell, who possessed one of the most beautiful and unique minds and spirits world theatre (or Planet World as he called it) has ever known, how could she not be? A later moment in the play when we see depictions and reconstructions of Ken’s own legendary eight hour adaptation of the Illuminatus books at his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in 1976, actually touches on the moment of her own conception, the result of a backstage opportunity during a particularly long onstage monologue. It is details like that which supply the play with deeper levels of meaning and enjoyment, such as a blink and you’ll miss it reference by actor and accordianist Tom Baker, playing an actor playing Aleister Crowley, briefly emulating Crowley’s infamous face resting on upturned forearms up pose. When I mention that Baker along with Shea, also plays Crowley himself at other points in the play, most notably by setting ‘Do what Thou Wilt Shall be the whole of the Law’ to a strident folkloric setting, you’ll begin to see that these small references are in no way tokenistic but are actually there to show deeper and sharper relevances than you would get in the fastly typed irrelevance of Simon Stephens and his like. Act two of this three parter also features a magisterial meta moment of textual breakdown, as if the whole shoestring bound edifice topples slightly before resuming its golden, angelic ascent.
It’s a remarkable play, served by an equally remarkable cast and crew. From Oliver Senton’s stentorian voiced Robert Anton Wilson in his numerous direct address monologues informing us of the nature of the story, to Leigh Kelly’s staggering wardrobe of roles, from Greg Hill to volunteer, ensemble, Goat Man, with the funniest hat I have ever seen, to a curiously attractive Playboy bunny who manages to do more with a look than a double D cleavage could ever accomplish. Carrie Marx expertly essays everyone from Karuna Wilson, to Daisy’s Mother, while Claudia Boulton captures the audience wonderfully with the eccentricities of her approach to text and the dramatic moment. Her somewhat ramshackle charm belies an effective theatrical confidence and she extemporises or gives the effect of doing so with the correct amount of textual emphasis required. In attempting to paint the clear light, to embody a child and to sing with the potency of the aforementioned angels, Dixie McDevitt, as already mentioned touches the heart. Kate Alderton, as Arlen Wilson provides soul to that heart along with an accessible warmth, skill and humanity crucial to her role, as she grounds the aims of her husband through her own spirit and poetry, that provides a secondary theme for the show and which indeed links the Wilson family until their separate deaths.
Lee Ravitz’s American accent is a masterclass in its own right and as he escalates the character of discordianism founder Kerry Thornley from political revelation to societal neurosis, his whipsnap energy is enthralling, as is the fire and force of Josh Darcy’s portrayal of the sainted Ken, roaring through the creation of the doorway his own daughter has now pushed through. The actor and musician, Jethro Skinner’s virtuostic portrayal of Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Hagbard Celine and the late actor Neil Cunningham (greatest voice on the fringe as once described by Ken Campbell) proves how talented and enviable this company are. One wants to be part of them as one watches and Skinner in particular glows with a kind of energetic positivism, beyond his silver Leary wig and orange Guantamano style prison togs. This is wonderfully evident in Act Three’s glorious jail set funk ensemble number, combining the nature of resistance and discordianism with the glories of chance and coincidence. Enquire Within is the stated refrain and the resultant jubilation ensures that this is the best we can do. A wonderful offshoot of all this is the inclusion of Larry Sidorczuk who was an original member of Ken’s Liverpool crew in a number of ensemble roles.
As current crew member Michelle Watson beamed, the ‘highs and lows of act three’ are monumental from this ecstatic and brilliantly staged number to a coruscating family tragedy, it shows how moment by moment, Cosmic Trigger re-invents itself, teaching us in so doing how to encounter, process and experience not only the play but the revelations and secrecies that surround us. The plays with which the mainstream theatre concerns itself are exercises at self reflectionism at best, and bar the occasional exception are statements of fashion and taste. Cosmic Trigger is not interested in taste. The play is about more than flavour and the emblem of the golden apple as celebrated by Boulton’s depiction of the Goddess of Chaos and change, Eris, proves this through its combination of the prized and the natural elevating what we have come to know and expect. Ken Campbell once said – and you could hear his voice so clearly through Josh Darcy’s summoning of him – that he had given up reading regular fiction as it was just about people coming in and out of rooms and falling in love; now he only read science fiction because its about everything else! And so it proves here. Cosmic Trigger as both book, play and project is everything else.
Supreme mixtures of charm and spectacle remain consistent throughout the play, as the theatrical contrasts with the summoned, showcasing Daisy Campbell’s skills as writer, imaginer, adaptor, depictor, director and producer. Like her remarkable father, before her, she makes magic of all sorts and on all levels actually happen on a stage. As Cockpit Theatre manager and executive producer of this project, Dave Wybrow has surely found the hook to hang his hat on and the box to place his soul. This production to continue the metaphors, is the jewel in his crown and the glitter of gold in his teeth.
The Cockpit is one of the best fringe venues in the country. It is a beautiful, versatile and evocative space, able to work as traditional near proscenium, thrust and in the round theatre, and the later form proves perfect here with Downstage left and right entrances used for character movement and Upstage Right (or sort of, as remember we are in the round) as reconstruction for Ken Campbell’s seminal Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (or the pool of life as Ken called it) platform, with the other side covered by the mystical void. Centre stage is the domain of the depicted and the literally experienced, including meetings with William Burroughs and Timothy Leary, while all other conjecture occurs at the edge. The theatre’s bare walls are used for projection and allow for the suitably seismic images and distortions of Alan Moore appearing as Satan, Narrator and FUCKUP, the emanation of the nature and practise of conspiracy as well as the need to breach, dispel and understand it. In all, it is a powerful set up that makes this 200 seat theatre a portal of becoming and thus one of the only important destinations this writer can think of approaching at the current time.
Having worked as a feature writer at Playboy, Wilson received numerous letters on the nature of conspiracy, and it was while conducting his researches that he came into contact not only with Robert Shea but with Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill, who introduce him not only to the power of lysergics as a whole but to the chain of coincidences linking the assassination of JFK and the framing of Lee Harvey Oswald, to the supposed Bavarian sources of the Illuminati themselves. I do not believe the concern of a review is to give away the facts of a production. What it should try to do is provide the reader with the impetus to go and see it, or to conversely, avoid it. It’s safe to say that witnessing this play is crucial to anyone at all interested in the nature modern history, politics, drugs, literature, sex, both extra terrestrial and human, tarot, golden apples, revolution and resistance on all and any level, transformation and transubstantiation, God and Goddesses, the Devil, Alan Moore, Ken Campbell, Liverpool, The KLF, John Higgs, Robert Anton Wilson, the family, Discordianism, naked women, penises both humble and profound and the finer details of alien Cabaret. In the final analysis does anything else matter?
We’re living at a time when the innovations in theatre and literature already established in the old century are, by and large, virtually unknown to new practitioners. Artistic generations feed off the bones of the previous ones before discarding them altogether, like wasted children outside a suburban KFC. Robert Anton Wilson’s prolific writing life did not free him or his family from struggle and hardship and even Ken Campbell’s later pieces were on a smaller scale, but let me be clear when I say that what this play does is remind us that the contribution of these two men alone, and the array of associated figures with whom they worked and came into contact with, represented the means by which a society and those working within it for effective change and spiritual redefinement, can reorder the structure with which we can take on the world. The cosmic trigger we are all invited to pull to start this revolution may well have been birthed in some distant and lysergically activated realm but it is now hovering before us. Like a unity of frightened Macbeths, our imagined weapon is not a gun or a knife, but the lever we loosen in order to learn how to be.
The Astral on Earth can be found.
David Erdos, 9/5/17
Oliver Senton – Robert Anton Wilson
Kate Alderton – Arlen Wilson
Jethro Skinner – Timothy Leary, Hagbard Celine and Alan Watts
Josh Darcy – Ken Campbell
Tom Baker – Robert Shea and Aleister Crowley
Claudia Boulton – Eris, Goddess of Chaos
Lee Ravitz – Kerry Thornley and Simon Moon
Dixie McDevitt – Luna Wilson
Leigh Kelly – Greg Hill, George Dorn and Goat Man
Carrie Marx – Prunella Gee, Mavis, Jano Watts and Karuna Wilson
Larry Sidorczuk – Albert Hoffman
Alan Moore (author of V for Vendetta) – is the voice (recorded) of narrator, Satan and F.U.K.U.P
William Burroughs – Rotating ‘Band of Burroughs’ that includes Alabama 3’s Rev Wayne D Love, Tim Newton, author, Alistair Fruish, and Cockpit MD, Dave Wybrow