As British as a Watermelon is a piece of autofiction narrative from artist Mandla Rae. The performance sees Mandla recall their past through a series of spoken word stories and poetry that are structured in a way that mirrors their fractured memory and messy, turbulent relationship with family, race, mental health, and sexuality. Mandla performs alone, amongst a scaffolding of light fixtures, surrounded by watermelons and wearing a watermelon themed dress.
From the offset, Mandla expertly speaks their pieces, allowing themself to be completely enveloped in an evolving character as they portray feelings of innocence as a child to the frustration, depression, and intensity of life in some of the darker moments of recollection. This instability in emotion and thought is expanded upon further with the frequent use of watermelons, which are either lovingly held in a prop fashion, precisely chopped with a sharp knife, punctured violently with screwdrivers and hammers, or grotesquely devoured, ripped apart and applied to the face.
A repeating urgent bass beat separates each scene, immediate and almost frightening, demanding suspense for each chapter that keeps viewers on their toes and holds their attention. The performance is rife with overlapping stimuli that engages and intrigues, such as the use of voice effects like speaking through a distorted radio channel or whispering phrases in a way that brings about an unease and tension. Audio is an incredibly important aspect of the video, and is aptly utilised.
The same can be said for the cinematography of the performance, complimenting the subject matter perfectly. The use of colour and light was as visceral as the poetry and audio, and helped to invoke the energy of the narrative in ways that were clever yet also minimalist and bare-boned. It forces viewers to imagine what is told, and allows for a more personal connection. Mandla’s acting whilst reciting their poetry depicted many unsettling scenarios, for instance, hiding from those knocking at the door wanting to “detain and deport” them – a phrase that is repeated to the point of potent uncomfortability; or when handed various tools, which were subsequently used to smash and stab at the watermelon in a messy display of frustration.
As British as a Watermelon is a performance that is totally gripping, a narrative about attempting to unravel multiple facets of the self that similarly explores multiple aspects of abstract performance and executes them well. It is layered with simplistic but effective visuals accompanied by intense audio usage that supplements Mandla’s struggle, allowing immersive storytelling through poetry that almost frightens with its immediacy and dark subject matter. It showcases vulnerability and strength in a compelling way that could be deemed overwhelming to some, but is by all means necessary to the piece.