My Life in CIA by Give It a Name | Theatre

My Life in CIA by Give It a Name | Theatre

Philip Morris explores a very familiar city in his review of My Life in CIA a Give It a Name production of Harry Matthews’ seemingly unreliable autobiography.

It was a strange, though not unwelcome, experience to bear witness to a romantic assignation between the elusive spy and postmodernist writer Harry Matthews and a mysterious, raven-haired, female Russian agent, on a balmy summer’s evening n the foyer of the Gare du Nord, accompanied by an a capella group singing La Vie en Rose – and all within the shadow of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Even stranger were the bemused stares from assorted hen-night and stag-do ravers, upon a street-side audience – all wearing black-rimmed glasses and colour-coded badges – congregated for a performance of Swan Lake of heroic incompetence and dazzling barefaced cheek outside St Davids Shopping Centre. Such cognitive dissonance is very much the appeal of this charmingly and wilfully perverse combination of traverse theatre, which takes in Cardiff’s public spaces (doubling for Paris and Milan), various hotels and pubs, and, at one point, the back-alleys behind St Mary’s Street’s bars and restaurants.

The world evoked in Give It a Name’s ambitious treatment of Harry Matthews’ seemingly unreliable autobiography My Life in CIA, is one of ultra-naff 1970s spy-thrillers blended with French situationist doodlings and post-modern reflections on the nature of chance and fate. It is also great fun.

My Life in CIA Give It a Name & Chapter review Matthews
My Life in CIA
Give It a Name & Chapter
Le Monde & other venues, Cardiff
Director: James Williams


The audience gathers at the Le Monde restaurant at 7:37, before departing in four separate groups at 20:02 – conveniently one of Harry Matthew’s recommended palindromic departure times, which he claims mitigate the effects of ‘travel stress dyslexia’. Each group embarks on their own particularly-designed walking tour of Paris – the Welsh capital on a Saturday night pulling off the role with uncustomary aplomb – during which a highly energetic cast pop up to deliver bizarre monologues, seminars on tantric sex and improvised poetry slams held at gun point.

It must be said that, at times, it did appear as though the cast was having more fun than the audience, and their improvisations bordered on the shambolic at times, but the overall sense of chaotic displacement, bemused alienation and affectionate parody that they created was a considerable collective achievement. Standout performances come from Dean Rehman, as Patrick Burton-Cheyne, who seemed as baffled by the evening’s proceedings as his audience; and from Katy Owen as a pint-sized, though lethal, East-German assassin.

My Life in CIA not only overlays the Paris and Milan of Matthews’ imagination across the physical geography of Cardiff, it also breaks up the text of his autobiography into a series of fragmentary, though interlinked, episodes that are distributed across its multiple locations. As such, it is difficult to trace any narrative, or construe any discernible meaning for it all without a detailed familiarity with the source material. That said, the principal pleasure of My Life in CIA were those moments when the familiar cityscape of Cardiff was transformed through the multi-sensory experience of travelling through a space and text that had been united though the power of performance – MA students of RWCMD’s MA in Music Theatre deserve a special mention here.

The evening is not without its difficulties, a needless ten-minute interval adds to an exhausting running time of two-and-a-half hours. The company might have easily shed a few scenes. The lack of an authored script also seemed to leave actors, on a few occasions, floundering for a line that would advance the action or delineate their character.

With its postmodern games of form and storytelling My Life in CIA belongs to a post-dramatic movement that is currently much in vogue with new and younger theatre audiences. On a personal note, I wonder if the most radical thing that might be done in the theatre right now, is simply to present two people on a stage in a darkened theatre dialoguing with each other to create narrative. And yet, as I stood with fifty other people on a fire-escape balcony at the back of St. David’s Hall, watching Harry Matthews fighting slow-mo Kung Fu style with a Japanese double-agent against a projected alpine scene back-drop, I felt myself smile at the absurdity of it all and cheered along.

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Philip Morris is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.