The Cosmic Trigger Play

Charlie:  I’ve written myself into my screenplay

Donald: That’s kind of weird

Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation

Adapting Robert Anton Wilson’s  Cosmic Trigger was never going to be easy.  Cosmic Trigger isn’t a novel.  it doesn’t have a clear story running through it.  Rather it is the thoughts and reflections of a man who has experimented with causing intentional psychological change on himself – and how all hist past experiences – and all the past roles he played – built up into one mind blowing, conciousness expanding experience – and the ramifications it left behind.  It is both a guide to experimenting with your notions of self and a warning about what might happen should you be willing to try.

It doesn’t leap out at you and say ‘Put me on the stage’

But Director Daisy Campbell isn’t one to back down from an insane challenge.  She has directed the insanely long Warp and put on Shakespear in Pidgen.  Oh and she was conceived backstage at her father Ken Campbell’s adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! (which is a book which absolutely demands to be put on a stage… but which also suggests rather forcefully that the stage ought to be so big that if all you had was all the world, you would likely to be slightly underwhelmed…)

I’m a big Robert Anton Wilson fan.  I’ve reread Illuminatus and Cosmic Trigger many many times.  I reread both again earlier this year to make sure I was primed and ready.  And on the 22nd of November (51 years to the day since the assaination of Kennedy and a day short of being 37 years since Illuminatus! opened) I was in Liverpool to see the cosmic trigger being pulled.

 The Venue was the Camp and Furness – a warehouse converted into an impossibly cool and trendy arts venue of the sort I love but never manage to feel quite at home in (because I am neither cool nor trendy, and not especially impossible).  I was surrounded by one of my tribes – fellow oddballs ranging from teenagers through to the elderly – but quite obviously younger at heart.  People who shared my love for RAW’s take on reality.  the theatre space was makeshift, but the production values were high.  intermission comments from the surrounding throng praised the visuals used to make the sets – and the props, and costumes, while basic, were also astonishingly effective at changing a bare white room into a mutitude of locations across time and space.

Were I to find criticisms (and a fair and honest review requires that I do) I would mention the sound – which was always going to be a problem in a venue with accoustics not designed for the purpose and that much of the play was performed sitting low down on the stage – which was a slight issue in a venue with stalls which were not on a slanted floor, and because the tallest man in the universe happened to choose to sit in front of me.  But these were minor – they in no way spoiled the fun (though I did wake up the next mornind with an achins shoulder, having had to convolve myself into awkward positions to see the action!)

The play itself follows the book – divesting some of the autbiographical details of RAW’s childhood and putting some of RAWs words into the mouths of others to avoid excessive monologuing.  But I think it is fair to say it also expands upon the book.  It opens with Oliver Senton – perfectly channeling RAW – breaking down the forth wall – and that wall is never rebuilt.

When Cosmic Trigger was written its audience were presumed to have read Illuminatus.  That is less reasonable for an audience of a play decades later, and so scenes from the original Illuminatus! are interspersed to convey key events.  But these scenes break down into backstage scenes from the production – with Josh Darcy taking the role of Ken Campbell.

Darcy probably was Ken Campbell in another life (either that or he’s a remarkably talented mimic who deserves plaudits.  In any event, the voice, likeness and gait are creepily accurate)

 At this point things become dangerously close to being self-indulgant.  A play about her father’s play – not an adaptation standing on it’s own merits.  And this was the danger of the Comsic Trigger play – it has been sold on the basis of being “What Daisy Cambpell did instead of doing Illuminatus”.  And had this been the end of things, it would have been a fine enough production.  Thankfully they were just getting started.

Cosmic Trigger hinges around when after a moment of mental breakdown (or possibly supreme clarity) Robert Anton Wilson begins to believe he is receiving psychic messages from extra-terrestrials from the dog star Sirius.  As this occurs in the world of Cosmic Trigger, the fourth wall breaks down with Not just RAW but Senton (or Senton playing the Character of Senton) questioning who he is, and asking Ken Campbell for advice (which fails to arrive, since Campbell is fully aware that he is a character in Daisy Campbell’s play…  a play in which Daisy Campbell has cast an actress to play the character of herself for this very moment) – Not only has the forth wall fallen, they have moved into strange and new dimensions and found new (and quite possibly non-euclidean) walls to break down.  It’s a metaphor for the new world in RAW’s head and it works well.

But Cosmic Trigger isn’t just about what RAW learns from sirius – the tragic and hearbreakign ending revolves around what RAW learned from his daughter.  And to this the Cosmic Trigger play adds what Ken Campbell’s Daughter learned from her father about drama and heroism.

But ignoring my interpretations, what remains in crazy, forth wall breakign madness involving sirians, an accoridan playing singing Alistair Crowley, Sex, Nudity, Drugs, A giant inflatable golden apple, pantomime, a could of sence which had a rather odd (and I’ve no idea how intentional) How I Met Your Mother vibe about them, Philosophy and a musical number about Timothy Leary’s 8 Circuit model of conciousness.

I did wonder “Would this be even vaugly comrihensible to someone who had never read Cosmic Trigger?” – but thankfully I found myself sitting two seats away from someone who had neve read Cosmic Trigger, and she confirmed it was totally understandable and that she was having a blast.

I spoke to Daisy briefly the day after (and I will write more about the Cosmic Trigger Confrestival later) and all I wanted to do was thank her.  Not just for putting on a production which far exceeded my hopes, but also – as a fan of the original material –  for not fucking it up.

I think there can be no higher praise!

It’s mving to London.  Go and see it.  Highly Highly Recommended.

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