In Water I'm Weightless

Kaite O'Reilly
National Theatre Wales
Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre

Sophie Stone & David Toole Credit: Farrows Creative / National Theatre Wales
Mat Fraser & Nick Phillips Credit: Farrows Creative / National Theatre Wales
Karina Jones Credit: Farrows Creative / National Theatre Wales

Commissioned as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, In Water I'm Weightless, National Theatre Wales's 20th full production, features some of the UK's most high-profile deaf and disabled performers (although the production was hit by the late, apparently temporary withdrawal of Mandy Colleran through injury, prompting much re-jigging), in what is something of a trippy multi-media cabaret.

Starting with the sobering "there but for the grace of God" reminder that we could all be a second away from ourselves becoming disabled, we're taken on a whirlwind ride through various aspects of the experience of disability via monologues, dance interludes, and a barrage of text and images (still and moving, live and recorded) delivered via ten spherical monitors and a more conventional screen at the back of the stage.

The text is by Kaite O'Reilly, much—but by no means all—of whose work as a playwright centres around issues of impairment (e.g. her affecting brain-injury drama The Almond And The Seahorse, which was one of my highlights of 2008), and who has done much to foreground performers with disabilities; it is derived largely from interviews carried out over a number of years, although one must presume that the actors themselves have had some input here, given the broad—perhaps too broad—range of realities depicted.

Confrontation is a major theme—the body is described as a war-zone, with cells attacking one another; individuals are constantly at war with the perceptions of others, well-meaning and otherwise; we are reminded of the large number of military leaders whose capabilities have been enhanced by their own disabilities. Director John McGrath, in collaboration with choreographer Nigel Charnock, stresses the actors' physicality at all times, although some of the most striking moments are the simplest—such as Mat Fraser dancing frenziedly to the Sex Pistols while unseen hands scrawl noise-orientated words on the backdrop, or Karina Jones rolling provocatively on the floor.

Sophie Stone's riff on demeaning comments "overheard" by those adept at lip-reading provides the most laughs, albeit uneasy ones; one imagines, though, that the skit in which disabled actors complain about stereotyping might be received with a mildly sardonic chuckle by those belonging to other minorities, and perhaps the wider community of mostly unemployed performers. Reflections on the feelings of dislocation engendered by having one's hearing restored seem to belong to an entirely different play, and while Nick Phillips's monologue about having his beer can mistaken for a collecting-tin is amusing, it suffers from being repeated. Just when one is beginning to crave more of a narrative focus, however, David Toole delivers a climactic, angrily polemical speech, a powerful call to arms, and the culmination of a perversely celebratory evening.

Indeed, the cast are uniformly charismatic, and even though the production is technically impressive and the writing as sharp as might be expected, it is the performances which leave a lasting impression.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith

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