Review: Breaking Up With JK Rowling @ Exeter Phoenix

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

I didn’t know what to expect walking into Breaking Up With JK Rowling at Exeter Phoenix as part of the Come As You Are Festival, and I don’t think I could have correctly guessed. Upon walking in, I was greeted by a striking image of J.K. Rowling’s books torn up, defaced, scattered around tables and all over the floor, and a single microphone in the middle of the room. The cabaret-style seating encouraged chat between audience members and performers alike as they set up casually in full view, creating a relaxed ambience. Each tattered and scribbled-on piece of paper, child’s sock and crumbled-up ‘Bertie Bott’s Every Flavoured Beans’ wrapper stirred up a feeling of pleasant nostalgia. There was immediately a feeling of powerful, jarring contrast in having a story that has so pivotally shaped a generation being treated with physical disregard. The sacrilege of mishandling a book is one felt by many book-lovers and, for the right viewing audience, a powerful semiotic image. But where there is sadness, there is anger, too. After all, J.K. Rowling was the first to rip apart her own work with all the clumsiness of physically ripping out pages.

Libby, the performing artist, began by reciting captivating poetry about their personal history with the Harry Potter franchise. They broke apart their relationship with J.K. Rowling in a piece of surrealist poetry which was both enthralling and gut-wrenching. Libby flitted back and forth wittily between humour, nostalgia and the desperation of trauma to encapsulate the experience and disappointment of a generation of queer children who found refuge in the pages of a woman who let us down.

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Libby conveyed all of this while receiving a stick-and-poke tattoo onstage. It was certainly impactful to know this was a moment that would be immortalized on their body, and for the audience to be a part of it.

Libby’s queering of the books held nothing back in relating them to sexual awakenings. As the theme tune swelled, their voice rose to an ecstatic climax as they urged us to sit our assholes on the edge of a book. While also being hilarious, it was indicative of how we can turn to rabid idle-worshipping in fandom spaces that take on something of a cultish fervour. Plus, it nods to the thousands of erotic fan-works that have queered the books in different ways, and how people use fiction to explore their sexuality in a safe space away from the dangers of navigating it in the real world.

We took part in this moment of letting go and breaking up by ripping pages from the books and defacing them with black markers. Each of us had the opportunity to perform our creations, and it became a competition to see who could make the most believable, crude fanfiction out of Rowling’s works. Seeing as how the queer community uses fan-works to co-opt material and shape it into something we feel represented by, it was a fun hands-on capitulation of that experience.

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Having said all this, I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied as the production ended. It was a perspective I’d never seen put to the stage before, and the idea was so powerful that I wished Libby had delved deeper into really exploring it. This performance felt to me like a scratch that could eventually grow into a tighter, more emotionally impactful show. By being overly informal, I found myself removed from the feeling of watching a performance, instead, it seemed more like a workshop.  (I want to stress that informality can be done well but it must also retain dramatic tension and be strategic in its placement.) Despite being advertised as half performance, half discussion, no discussion took place – no open dialogue that might have really utilized the relaxed atmosphere in the room. There wasn’t a sense of flow between the performance and hands-on tasks, which I would have expected. Tighter choreography and more rehearsal would have immensely improved the experience.

There were a lot of interesting and unique ideas in this piece, and I hope that Libby goes on to develop them further. The potential here is great – with some tweaking and a move towards a little more theatricality. Considering the performance’s theme of deconstruction, it would have been possible to really shatter some barriers and break the rules in ways that would have had me on the edge of my seat. Until then, I wish Libby luck and thank them for an enjoyable evening.

Rebecca Warner

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