Innovative company Sleight of Hand utilise mime and physical theatre to draw audiences into a world of the unknown: crossing the boundaries between familiar and unfamiliar, comical and tragic, realistic and surreal with poignancy and impact. Prior to the opening next week of their production of The Man Who by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, Theatre Bubble caught up with Ellie Chadwick to talk neurological disorders, health and the community, Peter Brook and mime.
The Man Who by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne is an adaptation (of sorts) of Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat . It’s also a chamber opera by Michael Nyman. You must have read and researched the book and around Oliver Sacks, how closely does the stage play reflect Sacks’ preoccupations with the neurologically impaired and how closely can it bring the audience to experience what it must be like to have so called ‘neurological’ disorders?
During rehearsals and pre production for the piece we have had a lot of discussion about the people in Oliver Sacks’ book, looking at how they correlate with and the ways they have informed the play. There are a lot of similarities, and in some places you can see artistic license entering a little, but always in a sensitive way I think, and always to serve the true emotional journeys that the play is inspired by.
The play is a challenging one for actors and audiences alike in its subject matter but is also something that there is generally a shared fascination for: the workings of the human mind and what happens when something goes wrong… When we first staged The Man Who at the Albany last year we were struck immediately by the very human nature of the play and how surprisingly easy it is to identify with these characters and their struggles. It encourages you to engage with their frustrations and confusions as they tackle some incredibly difficult symptoms, and (like the writings of Oliver Sacks) focuses on the journey of the individual, rather than the science.
It is an inevitable question. What’s the reason for choosing this work and why is it important to you and Sleight of Hand? Why must you perform it now?
There is a big drive at the moment in the healthcare sector and from charities for better awareness for mental and neurological disorders. There’s the Time to Change campaign for mental health and the Stroke Association are promoting awareness about the effects of strokes which are still widely stereotyped and misunderstood. There was also a programme with Robert McCrum on BBC Radio 4 recently about his experience of suffering a stroke – which he re-termed a Brain Attack – talking about the life-changing neurological, mental and physical effects that stroke survivors deal with. Many of the conditions in The Man Who are stroke or brain injury related, and it just so happens that the play we have been most fascinated with in our first year together as a company has been something widely relevant at the moment, that other people are fascinated by too. For us as artists, creatively its a challenge which we relish; emotionally it is full of depth and we embrace that too; and it has the potential to speak to people about important issues and we believe in that. Art reflects life!
Following on from that, why is it important that audiences come and see it, especially as it is not going to be that conventional? What is it you want them to be thinking about when they watch the show, what is it you want them to think- or feel- afterwards? How might you hope that it might change- or- help people and their perceptions of those whose cognitive, and therefore, experience of their own bodies, is vastly different? How might it help those who are experiencing or have experienced similar ‘disorders’ to those in the book?
We have already started to experience the potential that this piece has to effect people in our consultative work with charities. One Stroke Survivors support group agreed to meet with us during our rehearsal process and share some of their stories and experiences, while we shared some scenes-in-progress with them. Our sessions with them were incredibly moving: as well as giving opportunity for the company to gain better understanding of the conditions we are trying to portray with truth and sensitivity, the context of discussing an artistic piece of work and using it as a platform to promote discussion meant that the support group members were able to share some very moving stories more freely. We believe that this is helpful in a variety of ways: not only is it potentially quite therapeutic for those who have the chance to share, but for us it was also very eye-opening and educational, and we hope that our production can pass on the truths we learned. I guess we simply want audiences to feel similarly moved and inspired by our show as we felt when we met and heard the narratives of people who are actually dealing with conditions that have changed their lives.
You will be using mime and physical theatre to explore particular boundaries- unfamiliar/ familiar, comical/ tragic, real/ surreal. What are the challenges facing a) the performers and b) the audiences who may come to watch this with completely different expectations?
Mime is challenging and very actively engaging for both performer and spectator because it operates solely on the power of the imagination and the brain’s ability to “fill in the gaps”. It’s like drawing objects in the air and sometimes the technicalities can become stumbling blocks for actors – we have found some objects more difficult to create through mime than others. A mimed ball, for example, has an uncanny ability to change size no matter how hard we try to establish its proportions!
But the really exciting thing about mime for us in this production is that it allows audiences to be placed in the position of some of the patients. When the character is struggling to identify an object and exploring what it could be, we can put the audience in their shoes and allow them to go on that journey – of discovery and perhaps frustration – with them.
There are also some surreal elements to the show. There are places where we have asked ourselves ‘how does this condition make the patient feel?’ and the answer might be, like a puppet, or like they are trapped in a dream.. And we have staged that in a stylised and physical way to explore that feeling further, to try and present it to the audience more viscerally. I think that with the medical subject matter there may be a tendency to expect a very clinical production but as soon as the play opens there is a direct challenge to that perception in the text anyway: in the very first scene some amazing and bizarre stuff is taking place.. And I think we have just picked up on that vibe and run with it. Hopefully it makes for an interesting and dynamic show.
In a way, some of the stories in the book are about people who are powerless in the face of their own disorders. How does this seeming ‘chaos’ inform your own processes onstage? How much control or lack of it, is a performance element?
We have definitely tried to echo this sense of chaos in the aesthetics for this production. When we previously staged The Man Who at the Albany Theatre festival, we used a bare stage and our sound design explored the sense of the human mind as a machine – which we juxtaposed against the humanity and emotion of the scenes. While some medical approaches have been known to experiment with the brain as if it is a machine, like you simply need to press the right button to control it, the play obviously challenges this perception and shows the unpredictability as well the sheer power of the mind. It was interesting to explore this contrast in our scratch production. This time around, though, our focus is more on the human mind as an incredibly complex organism affected by life’s clutter and confusions in ways that we don’t really understand, and our new staging reflects this. Like Brook says in the play’s introduction, entering the mind is like going to another planet. In this staging our show has become more organic, we think, and the characters are now placed within a less controlled and more open, imaginative – and chaotic – context.
I know you have seen Peter Brook’s The Valley of Astonishment. What lessons do you feel you learnt from that production. Where did you think it succeeded, how does it resonate with The Man Who and your own work?
I’ve seen The Valley of Astonishment, and it resonated with The Man Who in a lot of ways since there is quite a bit of overlap in the conditions presented. The structure of the play is less fragmented as Valley of Astonishment has a narrative running throughout that ties it together, whereas The Man Who is a series of scenes that are largely unrelated in anything other than the theme of neurological disorder. We meet a string of different characters and so the challenge is to find some thread of meaning or allow the audience to construct it for themselves through what you show them. The style of Brook and Estienne’s production of Valley of Astonishment at the Young Vic resonated strongly with our work as a company in the simplicity of its staging: it was characteristically stripped back and making imaginative use of the Empty Space in the style which Brook has long advocated. Sound was also key, although while they used live instruments, we have layered SFX and recorded music to create atmospheric soundscapes for our show.
Peter Bazalgette wrote in the Guardian last year that more of the arts should be used to boost the nation’s health. He sited many organisations working closely with health care teams to provide ‘art on prescription’ so that art can help care for the person as much as health services can help care for the body. Where does A Man Who fit in with this? And do you agree- should we see greater collaboration between artists and health care workers or is too much like social prescribing? Could your production be ever ‘on prescription’?
Our consultation work with support groups and hospital staff has had the double purpose of informing our creative process and also providing a platform for helpful discussion and sharing of experiences to take place – which may have a positive impact, longer term, through promoting understanding and tackling stigmas. We agree with the idea that art can be healing: as Peter Bazalgette wrote, “we should tend to the spirit as well as the body, and the arts can do both”. I think that there should be greater collaboration between artists and people from all walks of life, not just in the health sector – theatre and art in general can be a way of bringing people together, breaking down barriers, and tackling stigmas and is an integral part of a healthy society. There is a healing quality to art that could definitely be put to use more often.
I’m not sure whether our production of The Man Who would ever be “prescribed” as in many ways it’s very challenging, and the relationship between consultative and scientific research and artistic integrity in this context can be a tricky one to navigate…but so far we have found that this project has naturally encouraged some very valuable discussions with different groups in the healthcare sector. Our production is perhaps different to some in the way in which we have tried to approach it: keeping the direct contact that both Sacks and Brook experienced with people who actually suffered with the conditions depicted. The consultative sessions have informed our approach and hopefully will be a big part of our future work: with huge benefits both from the artistic point of view and the personal and social/community perspectives. Some of the people we have met with have expressed a sincere wish to use this opportunity for the truth to be told about their conditions, something very important to them as there is so much misunderstanding surrounding the subject matter, and we think there is huge value in the ability of artistic work to provide this opportunity for people to tell their stories.
The afterlife for A Man Who? Where next?
Our production of The Man Who is the beginning of a longer term research and development process supported by the Tristan Bates Theatre’s Sparks scheme, and inviting collaboration from a range of artists – including writers, directors, actors, installation designers and others – alongside health practitioners and various organisations. We are going to be creating a brand new piece inspired by the work of Brook and Sacks, and based on new personal narratives in consultation with support groups, but this time staging it in immersive and site-responsive style. The aim eventually is to use design installation alongside performance to create a surreal version of the hospital world where you can explore the depths of the human psyche. The project is entitled ‘Ergo Sum’: keep an eye out for more news in the coming months!
A Man Who opens at Tristan Bates Theatre on 23rd March and runs until 28th March.
More info on Sleight of Hand here
You can tweet your thoughts about the show here @SleightTheatre (#theManWho)