Swimming to Cambodia - swimming uphill

Swimming to Cambodia: an exercise in why?

Does anyone remember indie director Gus Van Sant's 1998, shot-by-shot, remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho?

No, I didn't think so. But when it was released almost forty years after the original many film critics were scratching their heads and asking the same question: why bother? Van Sant couldn't improve on the original, so what was the point?

One might ask the same question about Long's Hill Theatre's production of Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia. A deeply personal monologue, "Cambodia" was Gray's baby; it won him an Obie, a National Book Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A film adaptation of the stage show was released in 1987 and achieved almost immediate cult status. The influence of Swimming to Cambodia on the one-person stage performance as a form cannot be overestimated. It's a milestone. And it made Spalding Gray a star. But because so much of the material in "Cambodia" is based on Gray's own experience it becomes very difficult to separate the work from its creator. Perhaps that is the reason why this is apparently the first professional adaptation of the play since Gray's 2004 suicide.

Although we will never get to see Gray perform his masterpiece on stage ever again, we can always see the film, and still be moved by the performance. It's a gem. Which is why this adaptation is such a head scratcher. Like Van Sant's Psycho remake this version of Swimming to Cambodia can add nothing to the original work and can only remain deep in its shadow.

That said, Shawn Watson does and an admirable job at telling Spalding's story. Rather than adapt Gray's neurotic jittery delivery (part of the charm of the piece) Watson turns the amps up to eleven and, for most of the 85 minute show, goes full throttle. Not an easy task considering he spends the entire play seated behind a table. But Watson knows the material he has to work with is golden and is confident in his presentation. (On a technical note, there were a few minor opening night glitches which should be easily overcome in subsequent performances.)

So if you'd be curious to see what Swimming to Cambodia might be like as a live piece of theatre, by all means, catch this production. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVD.

Spalding Gray's Swimming To Cambodia; Produced by Long's Hill Theatre and Performed by Shawn Watson; Part of the 2008 Victoria Fringe Festival. Remaining Shows: Sun 24, 9:00 • Mon 25, 7:00 • Thu 28, 8:45 • Sat 30, 6:15 • Sun 31, 6:00. For more information swim over here.

By Paul McKinnon