Fly­ing through her mind

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JOHN NATHAN

Wings Young Vic ★★★✩✩

IT IS not usu­ally the done thing for a theatre critic to com­pare a play to a film. This holds true even when a play is adapted from a movie. It’s a les­son I learned the hard way when Ru­fus Nor­ris di­rected a stage ver­sion of the un­for­get­table Dan­ish film Festen about a dark fam­ily re­union. What, I won­dered out loud to any­one who would lis­ten, was the point? How could a stage pro­duc­tion en­hance a story that had al­ready been told so ut­terly com­pellingly? Then it opened at the Almeida and was one if the best things I’d ever seen. So to com­pare Natalie Abra­hami’s in­ven­tively staged pro­duc­tion of Arthur Ko­pit’s 1977 play about the ef­fects of a stroke to The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly,a film that doesn’t even share the same au­thor, feels deeply dodgy. But here goes.

Ko­pit was moved to write what was orig­i­nally a ra­dio play after his fa­ther suf­fered a stroke. The main pro­tag­o­nist here, how­ever, is stroke vic­tim Emily Stil­son a for­mer, of all things, wing walker who wowed au­di­ences on the ground as she strolled among the struts of a bi-plane’s wings over their heads. Ko­pit met such a woman in his fa­ther’s ther­apy room, and to evoke the mem­ory of flight Juliet Steven­son gamely per­forms the en­tire 80 min­utes of this play sus­pended from a trapeze that swoops over the Young Vic’s stage like a moth. A Tiger Moth.

It is not just the mem­ory of flight that is evoked by th­ese aerial ac­ro­bat­ics but the con­di­tion of the mind losing an­chor with its body. The stroke has de­nuded Stil­son of speech. And just as lan­guage has left her, so has rea­son. The peo­ple we see as the doc­tors and clin­i­cians who are treat­ing her, she sees as en­e­mies who have “cap­tured” her.

Steven­son is on char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ex­cel­lent form as the in­wardly lu­cid, out­wardly dead­ened Stil­son. The frus­tra­tion of think­ing in a lan­guage that can­not be ex­pressed is su­perbly evoked as she twirls and reels through dark­ness punc­tu­ated by sud­den bursts of blind­ing light. Th­ese, we in­fer, are mo­ments when the out­side world breaks into Stil­son’s in­te­rior like wa­ter gush­ing into an air­lock.

But if the main ob­jec­tive of Abra­hami’s pro­duc­tion is to por­tray a lu­cid mind locked into an out­wardly dead­ened body, it is one mostly achieved by an im­pres­sive panoply of stage­craft tech­niques. Ron­ald Har­wood’s film did it with one bril­liant idea: to view the world en­tirely through the eyes of a locked-in mind. I’m not say­ing there isn’t much to en­joy in this stage at­tempt to evoke that ter­ri­fy­ing con­di­tion. But com­par­ing all that ef­fort to the one bril­liant leap of Har­wood’s imag­i­na­tion is ir­re­sistible.

PHOTO: JO­HAN PERS­SON

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