She’s performed at Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe, written commissions for the BBC and published a collection of poetry. Now UK-based writer and performer Jemima Foxtrot presents her one-woman show, Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea, at the Blue Room Theatre. She speaks with Xan Ashbury about the pleasures of fusing poetry, dance and song and how a chance meeting in a dressing room brought her to Perth.
What brings you to a fringe festival on the other side of the world from home?
When I took Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea to the Edinburgh Fringe, I shared a dressing room with the wonderful Perth-based company The Last Great Hunt. They were lovely people and they all came to see my show more than once. When I mentioned I was touring it they said: “You don’t fancy coming to Australia do you?” I laughed and thought it was impractical but they hooked me up with the Blue Room Theatre and lo and behold – here I am!
How did you come up with the wonderfully evocative title, Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea?
I find titles excruciatingly difficult to come up with. For me, they’re almost the hardest part of writing. Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea is a line from the show. A few of us were sitting round looking through the script for titles and the movement director, Tara D’Arquian, just suddenly shouted “Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea.” I think it’s really fitting for the show, which partly explores how difficult it can be to talk about things. The sea is a strong presence in the show and, like mealy-mouthedness, sometimes seems to threaten to swallow you up.
Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea deals with childhood, memory and “the lasting legacy of abuse”. What drew you to such a difficult topic?
Abuse is a difficult topic for sure and the more we shine a light on its nature and consequences, the better. It’s something that springs from an imbalance of power. It’s a difficult thing to talk about and I think childhood sexual abuse is still barely ever mentioned despite the fact that it’s alarmingly prevalent. I’m a very private person and I couldn’t get involved in the #metoo stuff; I didn’t like the idea of sharing my experiences of abuse and harassment on social media. For me, I like to shine a light on these issues through theatre.
Your show combines movement, theatre, music and poetry. Tell us about your artistic background and your journey towards combining these forms.
I’ve been interested in singing and dancing, in performing in general, since I was a young child. My dad was a composer and I used to sing some of his songs for him for recordings. Despite singing, dancing and acting throughout my teenage years, I studied English literature at university. Whilst there I joined the creative writing society and started to get interested in poetry as performance. I also had an acting agent whilst at uni but grew more and more keen on writing my own work for performance. Singing and music are perhaps my greatest loves. I missed being in bands and playing with my dad, so I thought why not bring song into the poetry? I’m really happy that this show allows me to engage in so many different types of performance: poetry, dance, clowning and song. I’m interested in how these things can complement each other.
Your singing style is reminiscent of traditional English folk music. What appeals to you about that genre?
I love folk music and I worry about certain folk songs dying out. I really just love the sound of a single voice unaccompanied or two or more voices unaccompanied harmonising. Folk songs are history, they are the people telling stories and morals to each other. They are written and passed on by ordinary people, not those who usually write history. They’re dense and rich and often dripping with delicious melody.
The appetite for performance poetry seems to be growing rapidly. Is that your experience?
It most certainly is! People are really loving performance poetry at the moment. I think it’s partly because it’s such an accessible form, all you need is a pen and paper. You don’t even need that! When I first started out I made most of my poems up in my head. I think people really like the ability to share their experience and have been amazed when others actually want to listen.
How did you become interested in poetry? Who were your poetry “idols” when you were growing up and honing your craft?
I first heard what you might consider a performance poem when I was about 15, when I listened to “Last thoughts on Woodie Guthrie” by Bob Dylan. It’s a 10 minute long ramble in rhyme and I immediately started trying to imitate it. Around that age I was also musically aping Amy Winehouse, who had just come on the scene. My interest in, and knowledge of, poetry has expanded over the years. It sometimes seems like an obvious one to say but I think Sylvia Plath is one of my favourite ever poets. I love Audre Lorde, Fran Lock, Fredrick Seidel, Elizabeth Bishop and Frank O’Hara. I try to read widely so that I can become a better writer, partly by deciding what I like and dislike.
You perform at intimate venues, through to festivals such as Glastonbury. Do you have a preference?
They’re very different experiences. I think when you become a seasoned performer, especially when you perform the same piece over and over, you get a bit less adrenalin. A giant crowd really does sort that out! Performing to a huge audience can be completely exhilarating. On the other hand, I think I actually prefer performing to intimate crowds; it’s nice to feel the personal connection in the room. It makes it feel like a bit of a secret.
Top: Jemima Foxtrot in ‘Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea’.
Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.