Swimming to Cambodia

While the death of the monologist in modern society may be sorely missed by those that remember their high point, the work of Spalding Gray is an admirable comfort. His passing was the final nail in the coffin of this career style, and while his vast backlog of work is with us, the man of fresh invention and engagement is not. His beautiful wordplay will never grace a hall, theatre or club again, which makes Swimming to Cambodia sore to watch. We have been deprived of a great artist, a superb lyricist and a formidable public speaker who could spin the most tranquil of tales into a bombastic, sentimental and imaginative piece of beauty.

Realistically, public speaking should not be so difficult, especially if prepared. Many find it difficult, nigh on impossible, to speak to an audience. How Gray utilises the audience is key to his success. He blends his experience and casting in The Killing Fields as a launchpad for a history lesson, filled with strong analysis and engaging wordplay. His erratic energy guides the audience well, weaving a tale of terror and destruction, but the body language and tone of Gray’s voice is detrimental to the success of his show. Neither scalding or optimistic, there is an energy presented here that fills the room. Seated behind a desk for the majority of his performance within Swimming to Cambodia, Gray works an audience we never see.

It is never necessary to see anyone but Gray, who tirelessly applies theatrics and dramatics to the soapbox formula. Surprisingly strong it may be, some moments could be focused or honed in. Such is the work of sudden, inspired craft, and while Swimming to Cambodia and its text may not be off the cuff, it is certainly a work of brilliant mental exercise to remember such a large chunk of humour, horror and hope. Articulate and creative, Gray is the dominant force that refuses to give. He does not let go of his convictions, his story is told with gut-punching brilliance, and we have director Jonathan Demme, in part, to thank for this.

Should it be a surprise that the loose nature of the camerawork and the fixation with the artist, rather than the scenery, comes to us through the eyes of Demme? His crafty perfection on Stop Making Sense is a world away from the slower pace of Gray’s spoken wordplay, but the two share more in common than first expected. They have an eye for the stage and what it means to work upon it, their shared belief that it is a tool to engage with, not merely a place to stand and spiel. Here is where Swimming to Cambodia comes together so perfectly. Two creatives, combining their work and passion to present a monologist who had so much to say, yet so little time to detail it.

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