Wednesday 26 January 2011

Complex conditions

Return to Silence, Pleasance Theatre, London

Four men stand beneath faded spotlights, one in each corner of the Pleasance Theatre, and mutter into microphones. Two huge screens flank the audience, which is split into six moveable sections. A pianist, whose restless hands occasionally flicker across the raised screens, tinkles mysteriously. The space feels fertile and the atmosphere furtive. Curious Directive is no Complicite (a palpable influence) yet – but this young company displays a similar spirit; bold and restlessly imaginative. 

The inspiration for the show is The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat; a book written by neurologist Oliver Sacks, detailing a number of his patients’ conditions. One eclectic source is not enough for this enthusiastic but over-packed production and this original text has been combined with the real-life story of neurologist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. This neurologist is the centrifugal force behind this medical maelstrom, and it is her sudden paralysis that kicks the show into motion.

As Dr Taylor is subsumed by her stroke, a flurry of past patients flashes through her consciousness and across the stage. A suspended clothes rack is dropped from above and, with outstretched hands and yearning faces, the actors assume their identities. It feels a bit overdone and many of the flourishes in this show could be flattened slightly – not every second needs to be stylised.

The neurologist narrates, ‘And then I leave my body behind’. With this, the dormant trolleys on which the audience sits are pushed into life. We are shuffled around a bit. The grunting of the poor ushers can be heard. It is this aspect of the show – the transportable audience – that feels the most indulgent. Few special spaces are created and it ultimately feels like like an over-complicated way of making new exit and entrance spaces. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

Nevertheless, it is in giving physical form to an array of rare afflictions that this company excels and they find increasingly inventive ways to explore complex conditions. Parkinson’s Disease inevitably rears its ugly head: a man stands, precariously, on a raised platform beneath one of the huge screens. An actress swarms all over him. Below, the ensemble clutches tiny red lights and sways erratically, creating a salient image of uncontrollable flickers and overwhelming chaos.

In another interesting exploration of Parkinson’s – a disease with which theatrical practitioners seem to be increasingly preoccupied – we are shown the alleviative effect of music. The ensemble, waving the red lights above their heads, sway about haphazardly. The narrator explains the positive benefits of music and adds, ‘It just takes the right kind of music.’ Soothing classical music soars from the piano and the crowd of red lights begins to move in synch. The music and actors sway together, in visual and vocal harmony.

There are lots of clever touches like this, which suggest a company alert to theatre’s ability to express through images rather than just words. There is still work to be done and the script, in particular, needs pruning. Many interesting ideas - a sister with autism and the neurologist’s initial stroke – feel seriously neglected in favour of less successful experiments. Curious Directive needs a little more focus, but the compant is undoubtedly headed in the right direction.

Till 29 January 2011


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