by Jamie King 20th May 2021
“What would it be, to be a woman who is aware of all the ways in which she is unlovable, and demand love anyway?”
The writer and performer Maz Hedgehog brings an hour of love to Turn On Fest. Dating love, friendship love, more-than-friends love, women’s love, queer love, Black love, and at the end of it all, self love.
Some people are scared of performance poetry. Expecting to be aggressively shouted at in metaphors they don’t understand. But Maz Hedgehog is a great reason not to be scared. Open, gentle, and emotional, mixing colourful fantasy with the stumble of everyday life, they welcome you into every verse of Let Me Count the Ways with a soft, vulnerable way of speaking, which in a livestreamed online performance, often makes you feel like it’s just you and them drifting through theatrical cyberspace together, like you’re just hanging out.
And with Faye Draper directing, Maz’s big, lyrical ideas are realised visually in subtle and very creative stagecraft. As they tell the story of a toxic fairytale – a lost girl waking up in woodland to find a sinister, spindly groom watching over her – the red lights, a tolling doomsday bell, and the dangerous, throbbing music (composed by Alpha Twang) build around Maz, as he holds her and strokes her, and his voice booms out – a recorded vocal by William Ijebor – “Let me have you.” As she trips and runs away, into a grubby bed on stage right, Maz then wakes up, pulling off a duvet, the lights crash back to normal, and it was all a nightmare. A nightmare of what love is not. It’s just one example of Draper creating a lot of magic with few ingredients.
But the key to the show’s broad, nimble range is Maz’s own skill as a physical performer. This is not just someone reading out their poems whilst lit nicely, but a proper performance of many different stories and characters, which Maz coasts through with a deftness for embodying a slump, a waltz, a seduction or an anxiety – rising and collapsing, jarring and musing, in and out of subtle changes of clothes, hair and make-up. Maz is the only performer up there, but the stage is filled with people.
It always comes back to love, where Maz narrates some very well-drawn relationships between characters, the most memorable being between two friends who sit watching Just Right and NCIS while one braids the other’s hair, getting her ready for a date with another girl. This old, devoted friendship has just enough romantic tension beneath its carefree appearance to be absolutely, totally believable. A story taking place in a million bedrooms, round a million laptops, always ending unfulfilled in the same polite hug on the doorstep.
“I tell her I’ll check in with her tomorrow night… and after her date… and the end of the week.”
From a stage set consisting only of a bed and a desk, Maz Hedgehog builds a whole life. Poems and women, nightmares and cigarettes. And at the edge of the stage stands a full-length mirror. It could become a threatening presence, but instead it becomes a friend. Maz reconstructs beauty standards around them, creating their own space. “I am fact, so I am pretty.” Perhaps becoming friends with the mirror is a much-needed way of becoming friends with yourself, and it is self-acceptance, self-love, where the play concludes.
“I know what it means to have skin, and that callouses are skin. They are the grandchildren of blisters, that make it a little harder to hurt me.”
Because Let Me Count the Ways is an hour where love, ultimately, is a force that heals. I hope each member of that virtual audience closed their laptop afterwards smiling from this theatrical blast of compassion, and I hope that Maz Hedgehog – a fearless, vivid poetry star – is just getting started.