National Theatre Wales
Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre
National Theatre Wales has been the focus of much criticism over the past year or so. The company's work-rate has appeared somewhat sluggish, and there is the perception of an unwillingness to engage with Welsh and Wales-based artists and their concerns.
That said, their month-long season of work celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, largely the work of Tredegar-born Labour politician Aneurin Bevan, is impressive in scope. It has included a number of events, such as an evening of stand-up comedy in Carmarthen featuring such luminaries as Alan Davies and Nish Kumar; and a specially commissioned, politically-inflected song (“No Profit In Pain”) by Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys.
There have also been five one-person plays, each performed over three nights in generally non-conventional venues scattered around Wales, sourced from noted dramatists (Katherine Chandler, Rachel Trezise, Peter Cox, Roy Williams and Alan Harris), which one hopes will be more widely seen; as well as a number of more experimental presentations reflecting the experiences of NHS workers and patients.
One of these is Eczema!, a collaboration between writer and academic Maria Fusco and composer and experimental musician John Harris. This première performance, in the BBC's Hoddinott Hall at the Wales Millennium Centre—the venue for many a Radio Three recital—was preceded by an afternoon of readings and reflections on the subject of skin and skin conditions; an estimated 15 million Britons suffering from the titular ailment, including the author/director herself.
Fusco’s discursive text takes the form of a kind of diary, outlining a week in the life of an eczema-afflicted individual—although the narrator’s persona is constantly shifting—male to female, schoolchild to mother. The common element is the all-consuming nature of the illness, and the constant, tiresome itching and flaking.
Through Rhodri Meilir’s warm but largely dispassionate reading, we learn of the different impacts of the disease on different parts of the body; the experience of wearing an iron mask during UV treatment only to discover fragments of a previous user’s shed skin in it; the guilty pleasure inherent in picking and eating a scab and rubbing the exposed flesh; fascination at the idea of a scab becoming a scar, and part of a permanent map of eczema's journey around the body; the feeling of weary resignation whilst being gawped at by medical students; the embarrassment, the insomnia, the constant discomfort.
Eczema! is less a play than a thirty-minute duet for actor and musician, Harris seeming to conduct Meilir via eye-contact as the soundtrack is played out, both live and pre-recorded. The company’s web site tells us that “using a specially-designed motion sensor glove, the data from thirty seconds of Fusco’s own skin-scratching [has been] harvested and translated into a digital score”, and the soundscape is dominated by a tempestuous, pervasive drone, reflecting the nagging persistence of the ailment. Harris’s spare, discordant interpolations on the organ reflect the tone of the text, most strikingly during the stormy, climactic crescendo.
While there are stretches of the script which seem unhelpfully repetitive, on the whole Eczema! is intriguing, easy to relate to (although I speak as someone who has been affected by psoriasis for many years), and highly effective in terms of taking us inside the experience of living with an illness which while neither disabling or life-threatening, is a constant, unwelcome guest, dominating one’s existence.
This was the sole scheduled performance; the fact that a limited-edition vinyl recording is being released, however, suggests that Fusco and her collaborators suspect that the piece will have an extended life. It certainly deserves to.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith