The Shape of the Pain

Chris Thorpe
China Plate
Northern Stage

Hannah McPake in The Shape of the Pain Credit: The Other Richard

Art can make us feel many things: anger, joy, fear, jealousy, desire, lust, longing, melancholy, sadness, inspiration, confusion, ecstasy, despair, relief, confusion—the list goes on. The one thing art finds trouble making us feel—unless it literally lays hands on us—is physical pain.

Which is why this short one-woman play, which has so much going for it, can only partially succeed.

However much the actor Hannah McPake articulates on stage the experience of living with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)—a constant, unending, merciless pain for which there is no medical explanation—our empathy is limited. Sympathy not so.

Another person’s pain is silent and invisible to the rest of the world.

The piece originated with the experience of the director Rachel Bagshaw, herself a sufferer of CRPS. Rachel developed the play idea with writer Chris Thorpe and there’s an impressively long list of medical collaborators listed in the programme.

It arrived in Newcastle trailing Scotsman Fringe First and Offie awards and, though the set is deceptively simple—a curve of eight tall, dark panels, a bare black stage and not a single prop—such minimalism disguises the sophisticated sight and sound system (with an often arresting original score by Melanie Wilson).

McPake herself is garbed simply in black top and jeans and slightly disarmed me five minutes before the start by asking if I wanted a cushion, a question she seemed to ask of most audience members. That’s a first.

Across those tall, dark panels is projected every word of text simultaneous to McPake’s delivery. The device does allow us to see just how word-perfect the actor is (and she is).

The narrative line involves McPake taking up a new relationship, how her condition influences it and how both she and the man react to the situation.

As she says at one stage, echoing a famous Royalty quote, "there were three of us in this relationship."

And, as she also says, pain in some circumstances can be useful or necessary.

"My pain was neither useful nor necessary," she adds, a slight sense of irony, but no self-pity. Actively seeking sympathy is rarely indulged—McPake often employing a gallows-type humour as against hand-wringing. It’s a remarkable performance, finely pitched.

At its best, Thorpe’s script is powerfully lyrical and moving; at its worst it is over-analytical.

At one moment, the audience are bombarded by a visual and audio blitzkrieg which I wanted rapidly to end—presumably the kind of desire experienced constantly by the CRPS sufferer and probably the nearest we onlookers can get to the pain’s reality.

All theatre of course is illusion. An actor suddenly screaming out loud for several seconds may carry off the illusion of being in pain.

Talking about it on your own, on stage for an unbroken 70 minutes is a different matter, even though McPake’s intimacy with the audience always keeps us involved. It’s an unusual and challenging theatre piece, but ultimately the set-up does not allow it to reveal the full, painful truth.

Should we also have had her partner on stage for the character to bounce things off? Just a thought.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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