Review: Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre
National Theatre Wales In Water I’m Weightless
Marc Brew Company Fusional Fragments
Unlimited is a major new season at Southbank Centre celebrating the work of deaf and disabled artists. Running in parallel with the 2012 Paralympic Games, the two-week event features 29 new commissions from disabled performers and creators working in the fields of theatre, circus, comedy and dance, and includes work engaging with themes ranging from physical disability to psychological disorder.
In Water I’m Weightless , a new performance by theatremaker Kaite O’Reilly examines the worlds of five performers with sensory and physical disabilities, using their own words to describe life with a blue badge. In places bitingly funny – there’s a fantastic sequence in which deaf performer Sophie Stone signs a series of outrageous “Things I have lipread” (“At least the phone bill will be small, hahaha!”) – In Water I’m Weightless is also frequently angry about the well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) assumptions able-bodied people make about people with disabilities.
The spoken-word sections are signed throughout, and dialogue is projected as surtitles onto a screen at the back of the stage; even for viewers with normal hearing this projection can sometimes serve as a distraction, the words pulling attention away from the performers delivering them. All speaking is also amplified with microphones, which can sometimes also lead to a distracting booming effect. Important as it is to make performance accessible to a wide range of audiences, it’s sometimes hard to cope with the sheer quantity of multi-sensory stuff happening on stage.
O’Reilly’s work combines spoken word with movement material by choreographer Nigel Charnock which is readable and effective. Performer David Toole, who has danced with both Candoco and DV8, moves with consummate grace and ease. Stone’s signing sequences have an eloquent beauty to them reminiscent of classical gesture; actor Mat Fraser has strong, clean lines that suit the dance sections well. Towards the end of the show, the whole cast break out into satirical burlesque set to Hey Big Spender, riffing on the theme of cuts to disability allowance benefits, ending with a furious one-fingered gesture that leaves us in no doubt as to the strength of feeling shared by O’Reilly and her performers.
Australian-born choreographer and performer Marc Brew has made dance for disabled and non-disabled dancers for over ten years. Fusional Fragments is a new collaboration with composer Philip Sheppard and solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, the latter fresh from a triumphant performance at the first Olympics opening ceremony. The title is apt; Brew’s work is an abstract collection of fragmented movements, loosely connected in space without narrative or overt theme. The material brings together neoclassical lines and plentiful high extensions with snaking contemporary torsos and hints of tribal rhythm.
Glennie herself performs live onstage and embodies something of the wildness of the percussive score; long, pale hair flying and feet bare, she attacks a mind-boggling array of tuned and untuned instruments with joyful abandon. One of the most interesting aspects of the performance is undoubtedly watching to see what remarkable object Glennie will conjure up sound with next: a large glass ball; a spiral-shaped cymbal; a cage of ringing brass bars; an arrangement of what looks for all the world like tealight holders. Glennie’s fiery energy is the driver of the piece, and sets a high bar for the dancers to compete with.
Brew’s dancers are agile and athletic, but for me their rigorous placement – balletic fifth positions, little scissoring hops and high battements – neither matched the primal energies of Sheppard’s score, nor fully counterpointed it. The careful, bound movement looked in places as if it could have been choreographed to another score altogether; no matter how much energy the dancers expended, the limits of the material locked them into a cautious performance that contrasted visibly (and negatively) with Glennie’s own. If the five talented dancers cut loose a little more, Fusional Fragments could be a much more exciting work.
Deaf and disabled artists frequently have to work harder to be noticed, and Southbank’s current festival does vital work in making the work of disabled artists visible on an unprecedented scale. Head down to the centre for a host of talks, workshops, performance and free events that might just change your perceptions.
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