To interviewing comedians, you usually don’t travel to Belgium to attend festivals of Flemish culture. When you talk to them, you usually won’t be distracted by a dead fox, which lies on a table and occasionally wags its animatronic tail. But this is Kim Noble we’re talking about. Obsessive videographer of his own life, professional cleaner and darling of Euro arthouses. “I don’t classify myself as a comedian at all,” he says. “But I still have this built-in thing that I need to make people laugh.”
He certainly did tonight – albeit for more performance art than he finds in London. We are backstage at the Campo location in Ghent, where he (seven years!) is developing Lullaby for Scavengers, the third part in the trilogy that started in 2009 with Kim Noble Will Die and featured the remarkable 2015 You’re Not Alone. Both shows have honed Noble’s signature video and performance style, blurring life and art, depression and fragile hope, the tender and the (notoriously) repulsive.
“But this show is very tame,” Noble says. That would be easier if I hadn’t just watched a show where Noble leans back naked in a tub full of maggots, tries to kiss his mother and attaches a Heath Robinson fox alarm to his swollen gonad. And yet, for all its provocations (“to me, they’re just part of the show’s puzzle”), Lullaby for Scavengers is a strikingly beautiful hour, as Noble struggles to get between humans and some unloved members of the animal kingdom (including foxes). ) and seems to be wondering: who are the real pests here?
As in You’re Not Alone, the show is at its strongest, showing the 47-year-old his final responsibilities to his dying father. But it’s also a brooding show, about a man ‘at that moment everyone I know has a partner or children or a house, and I don’t really’, he says gloomily. “I don’t know what I have.” What he has is a maggot for a daughter, a dead squirrel taken from his attic and now co-hosts the show, and a job (guerrilla video for our pleasure) cleaning for a major insurance company – which “started out as an art project then became the real thing.” With Covid wiping out much of his work, Noble now depends on cleaning for an income.
All this, you might think, might justify the depressed cast of his work. On the other hand, it’s not hard to sustain the “I’m a loser” conceit when your work is lovingly cared for by esteemed production house Campo, when your recent podcast has been critically acclaimed, and when you’re running a two-week run. brewing at Soho theater?
“It’s weird because it doesn’t make any difference,” Noble replies. “I’m already worried that the show is over. I’m already like: I’m done with that.” His success, he argues, is built on fragile foundations. The 2020 podcast series, Futile Attempts (At Surviving Tomorrow), has not been relaunched. A prominent UK festival withdrew from Lullaby for Scavengers, which Noble was “damn furious about. But I don’t think they had the ability to tackle anything that could have a negative setback. What this show could do.”
That’s what’s going on right now with Noble, an artist whose work, even before the advent of the so-called “cancel culture,” often infuriated audiences — for cannibalizing the lives of those who appear in his videos, for his sexual explicitness, for presenting Noble’s real-life mental health issues in ways that didn’t always feel safe. “My job is a damn can of worms,” he admits. “You open it and where do you start?!” Whither such work, no less of a middle-aged white man, at a time when shows that seek to excite and provoke are sorely out of fashion?
“L ben a bit of an old white dinosaur,” says Noble. “And I now attribute my lack of opportunities to that shifting sand. But sometimes,” he adds gloomily, “the stuff might not be that good.” And as for the current show? “I don’t think it’s that rude” [as its predecessors]. But because the expectation has shifted, it still causes some commotion.”
I think audiences – especially those with a strong stomach – will love Lullaby for Scavengers. It is made in good faith; it asks questions that — give or take a bath full of maggots — apply to most of our lives. And Noble also finds a mite more at ease and less vulnerable on stage. “I used to hate doing the shows,” he says. “hated the. I didn’t want to do them. I wanted to do other things. But now that I don’t have any other stuff, I’ve been a bit more relaxed about it.”
Whether that will translate into success in his homeland — where Noble is still considered a comedian and where comedians’ words and deeds are hotly contested — remains to be seen. “Here in Belgium,” he says, “it’s a more theatrical/experimental performance environment, where they’re used to people sticking things up their ass and acting weird on stage. Who knows what will happen in the UK?”
Kim Noble: Lullaby for Scavengers is on show at Soho Theatre, London, September 15-24 and March 15-April 8
Brian Logan’s trip to Ghent was paid for by the production house Campo