What if I Told You

Pauline Mayers brings theatre/dance piece What if I Told You? (directed by Chris Goode) to the Royal Exchange Studio.  The performance weaves together interconnected strands to investigate prejudice based on skin colour.  Theatre and dance combine in a thought-provoking yet playful exploration of life, racism and how slavery informed modern medical practices.

There are five clear strands.  One, her personal history centred on her role as a dancer at Rambert.  Two, presentation of specific, often repeated, dance moves.  Three, an investigation into James Sims, cited by some as the ‘father of modern gynaecology’, who experimented on black female slaves.  Four, audience interaction to mirror her story and experience.  Five, random audience interaction and contact.

The mix of styles is fascinating, Pauline is a compelling performer, and the themes run rich throughout.  But some parts are stronger than others.  Her personal story lacks the impact of similar themes I have seen at, for example, Divergency.  Dance is impressive but not a significant enough part of the show compared to say Jo Fong’s An Invitation, also at the Exchange studio.  The scenes dealing with James Sims are powerful both in terms of the storytelling, the imagery and the very thought provoking scene where we mimic a painting of the man and question the roles of each onlooker in terms of their skin colour.  The mirroring is very clever and an effective way to illustrate Pauline’s narrative.  I have no idea what the audience interaction was meant to add, it just made me very uncomfortable to the point where I didn’t enjoy this.

So, a very mixed performance.  I suspect your response to this piece depends on how comfortable you are with this level of interaction.  I’m not.  By trying to make it interactive and draw us into the space, the story loses impact; Pauline is emotionally too close to us to see all the messages clearly.  An interesting mix of theatre, movement and dance but in no way groundbreaking.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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