How do you describe the sensation of pain inside your body in a way that can actually be understood by another person? How do you explain a pain that doesn’t have a cause – is only “real” in so much as you are feeling it? These are the questions that Chris Thorpe and Rachel Bagshaw grapple with in “The Shape of the Pain”, an exploration of chronic pain based on Bagshaw’s own experiences.
Like much of Thorpe’s work, this play experiments with form; sound in particular is crucial, adding texture to the descriptions of pain. In another innovative move, the entire script is projected onto metal screens on the back wall, leaving the audience flitting between the text and the person speaking it.
If it seems strange to mention all the production values before the performer, it is because it does seem in this play that form is the dominating element. Hannah McPake gives an impressive performance, giving voice to Bagshaw’s pain in a way that is sensitive, empathetic and stark. A particularly impressive section is the one in which she goes through all the different useless pieces of advice Bagshaw has been given for her pain – “Have you tried not thinking about it?” etc – which really brought home the sheer lack of understanding that most people have of chronic pain.
Yet the performance never really succeeded in creating an emotional connection; I never truly felt for the character, because the staging was so stark and alienating. Even the more universal storyline was difficult to get into. A love story is easier to connect with than inexplicable pain, and yet it felt as if this love story was knocked down before it had really had a chance to get going. Perhaps that is true to real life experience – that the shape of the pain is too all-encompassing to let love develop without doubts and paranoia. But for a show about the limits of empathy, I felt the audience needed to be given a little more to work with. The play was clever and had moments of really beautiful description, but it failed to engage on an emotional level.