by Maeve Campbell
Cosmopolitan’s current most-read article is a feature on a $35 maternity dress worn by Megan Markle. This is, as explored in performance artist Paula Varjack’s latest work, an example of post-recession celebrity dressing. Yet mixing a Gucci top with Topshop jeans is a distant dream to those of us who will never be able to afford to wear Gucci.
High-Street giant H&M capitalised on the aspirational dressing trend with their 2015 Balmain collaboration. Hordes of shoppers waited outside the Regent Street store on a cold November morning, with hopes of snagging that velvet rope dress Kylie Jenner had worn on a red carpet weeks earlier. This dress would appear on Ebay, listed at triple its retail value, later that afternoon. In 2016, H&M announced they were recreating that magic with French/Japanese fashion house Kenzo and Varjack was determined to be first in line to nab that season’s ‘It’ dress.
Throughout The Cult of K*nzo, Varjack examines an obsession that she and so many others have with beautiful things they can’t afford. The charm of this show is that Varjack doesn’t criticise the predominantly feminine desire to own expensive clothes or make-up, but in the examining the ways in which these things, and associated lifestyles, are sold. Early on she plays an edited video interview with Kenzo’s artistic directors, comically emphasising the use of ‘stories’ or ‘storytelling’ in their branding. Varjack constantly returns to this ‘storytelling’ in the various dramatic devices she employs. These include doctored fashion adverts, movement sequences and a beautiful series of illustrated animations that depicts a fairytale-esque version of designer Kenzo Takada’s rags-to-riches life story.
Varjack pairs this narrative variety with a lightness of touch in addressing the race and class politics that lie sinisterly under the surface of her content, and she deftly manoeuvres a surprisingly tragic ending. The show also relies on her expert performance abilities as she plays with an earnest and geeky persona that makes her immediately likeable. Her specificity of movement, even in playing out a consumer mania, demonstrates an envious skill.
The Cult of K*nzo is funny, clever and moving and is going on a tour of England this year so will hopefully be seen by a variety of audiences, sure to relate to Varjack’s timely story.
The Cult of K*nzo runs through 9 February, then tours.
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