I did not know anything about John-Paul Zaccarini before going to see last night’s performance of Head at Jackson’s Lane Theatre in Highgate. It is safe to say I am now fully, irreversibly, obsessed.
Head is difficult to define: part lecture, part circus, part poetry and part performance art, it was a witty, raw and carnivalesque hour exploring the relationship between the audience and the performer, as well as the performer and the performance. It was staged in a series of “poems”, some of which were spoken word but others of which were physical performances such as “an ode to my knees” entitled “I’d rather not”. We were even treated to some expertly rendered 90s London rap, all layered over the sparse yet intense compositions of Peter Coyte. Zaccarini is a masterful performer, delivering poems with the same incredible precision and poise that he then performed aerial stunts on the rope. The difference was that in the poems Zaccarini was grounded, raw and slyly erotic whereas in the aerial moments he was totally weightless, otherworldly and pure. That is, until he chose not to be, with an audibly whispered expletive during “an elegy to my hips – I really don’t want to’” puncturing the illusion like a well-aimed pin through a balloon.
And balloons there were a-plenty. A child’s paddling pool filled with balloons of all colours, shapes and sizes was the centre piece of the set, into which was hung the frayed length of rope used for the aerial aspects of the performance. At the top of this rope a figure with a balloon for a head, dressed nattily in a blue suit matching that worn by the performer, was suspended. Six other figures, similarly dressed and with similarly inflated heads, were placed to each side of the stage. They too ended up suspended in various positions; one tied by the hands, one by a foot, they resembled medieval torture victims, grotesque and dangling piñatas uncanny in their resemblance to the performer. They were mercifully cut down, and put into the pool, creating a deeply striking image as Zaccarini climbed the rope in one final aerial display, and danced in the air above his balloon-headed doppelgängers.
There was a great deal of humour peppered through the evening, from the intro laden with ribald innuendo delivered in the style of a nervy university lecturer to a gravity defying ,afro-styling mime. Yet the shadows of this show were deep and bleak, and Zaccarini did not shy away from topics such as suicide, sexual abuse, racism and mental ill-health as we followed through the (autobiographical?) narrative of a curious child from concrete cancer estate to religious boarding school and out into the world of performance and the circus. The poetry, excellent throughout, was a particularly exquisite vehicle for these themes, line after line landing like stones with absolute precision in the hearts of the audience. It was extremely powerful, brave and thought-provoking. In his final spoken piece, just before he gathered up his things and stepped off the stage, Zaccarini asked for no applause. The audience couldn’t help themselves: the applause rang out anyway, in a traditional display of appreciation for a truly non-traditional show.