Saturday, 8 October 2011
When did you last go to the theatre? When did you last paint a picture? When did you last read or write a poem? When did you last listen to music? Music at least is all around us and free for the taking, do you really listen, do you dance? Do you love it? Are you paying attention your life which is such a gift, or are you focussing on what’s missing, what you wish you had, things that you might have lost or might have done? I’m not trying to challenge you, I’m just asking the questions. I’m so curious about the people that come and read my blog. I’ll always wonder about you. And last night I went to the theatre for the first time in ages, it kind of awakened something in me and I want to share....
Art in all it’s forms can be transformational and rejuvenating. My father was a musician, he lived to make music and I’m so proud and happy that he had that gift and shared it with the world. He was due to play a gig the night he died. I was so pleased that even though he was unwell and generally pissed off with the world, he still had that wonderful thing in his life and he loved it. He was doing his thing right up to the end and that makes me happy, even though it’s sad that he’s gone. I digress...
So I saw this show last night. It was called Awake – billed as “an epic visual spectacle about one man’s journey to survive. Max is a man in a hurry. Places to be, tasks to achieve, but his life seems to be slipping more and more out of kilter. He can’t be ill, because illness is for wimps.... A story about health, harmony and the hunger to succeed, told in words, acrobatics, music and dance....”
You can see how it would appeal to me. These last two years or so I’ve been on my own journey with illness and that attitude to it resonates a fair bit. I’ve had to learn acceptance, to be vulnerable and to be able to show it, I’ve had to curtail my ambitions and the scope of my activities, I’ve experienced frustration and even desperation at times. And I love a bit of visual spectacle.
This show was produced by a cool woman I met around the time my health started to crumble. I hadn’t kept in touch with her, I haven’t kept in touch with lots of people as I just haven’t had the energy. But another dear friend knows her too and had been invited to the show. We went together.
It was on at Jacksons Lane theatre in Highgate till this Saturday 8th October. You can check the Awake website for other dates and venues. Jacksons Lane is a cool space, they do lots of good stuff there, Id’ never been before and if you haven’t either I recommend you check it out soon, it’s a real gem. I’m going to miss being able to just hop on a bus to a different part of town and see fabulous innovative art at the drop of a hat (did I tell you I’m leaving London, more on this in another post soon. I digress again... sorry).
We chatted afterwards with the producer, Hege and the creative director, Christopher. I enjoyed the conversations as much as the show itself.
Christopher was inspired to stage a show about illness from his own experience of diabetes, which before he was diagnosed and effectively treated really tore him apart and left him confused, distressed and feeling washed up (I’m paraphrasing here, hopefully he will not feel misrepresented). To hear him say that, as we talked in the bar, a beautiful, healthy looking man, looking so full of vitality and creative energy, it gave me renewed hope that there is indeed life after illness and that we can sometimes emerge stronger and more powerful in the world, with more gifts to share with others, as a result of difficult experiences.
Hege talked to me about a realisation she had had about vulnerability and language. Apparently the Patagonian word for “depression” is the same as the word they have that describes when a crab sheds is shell and is temporarily vulnerable and exposed without it, during that period of transformation before it takes on its new bigger shell. I loved that! Clinical depression, thank goodness, is something I have never experienced, I’ve had low moods and even dark thoughts but they have always passed quite quickly and I’ve felt comfortable that they have either clearly related to the hormonal imbalances of hypothyroidism or just been reasonable responses to being in the tricky situation of living with a chronic illness. My general disposition is upbeat and cheery about life.
I’ve been taken aback by discussions with medical professionals that often seem to collapse concepts of deep depression with fleeting low feelings which everyone gets. While recognising the benefits of positive thinking and I actively cultivate a positive attitude and calm acceptance to my situation, I’ve been struck by how uncomfortable our culture is with sadness and how much shame is attached to being vulnerable or low. Yet life is meant to be made up of light and shade, we can’t be up all the time. I feel there is an exploration of language and attitudes to vulnerability and illness and the flow of life that our society can have, that will benefit us all by raising our consciousness and helping us be more accepting of those times when we are out of control and going through transformations. Hege is going to be doing more work in this area and I said I’d love to be involved in some capacity. So how bloody exciting is that!
The show was exhilarating. The cast incredibly versatile, the staging sparse but using every inch of the space with spectacular use of a harness where cast members spun above our heads and flew across the stage with wild abandon, throwing gorgeous shapes in the air, coming together and leaping apart as the high emotions and raw experience of coming face to face with Max’s illness were fully explored. My favourite bit was a totally surreal sequence where Anna-Helena McLean took to the microphone and delivered a virtuouso incoherent genius gabble/near-rap, just off stage and accompanied a tumbling / dance performance led by Max (Oliviero Papi) and Christopher (in a bear suit), joined by Pelle Holst in a devil romper suit, set around a giant multi compartmented wardrobe. Wah! I nearly jumped out of my seat it was so brilliant!
But there were also many more poignant and solemn elements to the performance too - beautiful singing and great dialogue, exposing the brittleness, insecurities, jockeying for position and petty jealousies that overlay the day to day ordinary life of most “successful” urban professionals. Amplified sharp breathing echoed across the stage highlighting Max’s pain and fear - struggling and powerless in the face of illness while his beautiful wife is unaware and carrying their first child and his friends and colleagues continue to fete him as they always have, as the man who has it all.
Christopher told me afterwards that he felt he needed to use an illness in the show that people could readily comprehend as dramatic and serious, so Max has terminal pancreatic cancer. I think this is a bit of shame and believe that the audience could perhaps relate their own lives to the main theme more readily if the illness was not so specific. I would have preferred more ambiguity around whether Max will live or die and quite what is wrong with him and I think it would be a braver production to choose not to lean on the inherent drama of a terminal cancer diagnosis but to explore the impact of chronic illness more broadly.
But my overall impression is that this is a great, thought provoking, exciting piece of art and I loved it. I had a wonderful night. I applaud the Awake Project for their vision ambition, talent and most of all for actually making this show happen. How many of us are involved in creating art? I paint a few pictures, I write a little bit. To stage something on this scale, with so many elements and requiring so many resources to make it happen. I can only take my hat off and wish the company every future success in continuing to refine their show and going from strength to strength. Respect.