THE SHAPE OF PAIN, AT THE JUNCTION
How do you portray pain? Not just any pain but exquisite, penetrating, savage pain that gnaws through to the soul? This was the challenge thrown down by Rachel Bagshaw, a theatre director who suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) – a neurological disorder which manifests itself in 24/7 bodily torment without any known cause. A theatre work about endless shattering pain may not sound like a fun night out in the front stalls but Bagshaw’s collaborative play provided a stunning and mind-bending experience for the audience. Performed by Hannah McPake and drawing on a thrilling sound and light landscape, this former Fringe First winner provided what The Junction does best – edgy, risk-taking theatre providing a showcase for small-scale touring companies (in the way that the late lamented Mumford Theatre did before its unheralded, shock closure in January).
Bagshaw worked with writer Chris Thorpe to provide a thoroughly exciting and memorable script – poetic and lyrical, brutal and excoriating by turn. Its structure reminded me of a piece about Chet Baker by Cambridge-based performer, Mike Maran. In his touching biography, the jazz trumpeter’s constant companion, his syringe of heroin, was portrayed as a character, a friend/enemy. In ‘The Shape of Pain’, our fictional hero addresses her torturer in a similarly anthropomorphic manner.
McPake is astonishingly convincing as the CRPS sufferer, a young woman in early thirties. Her suffering seems unbounded but she tells us that ‘the pain underpins me. But that is not all I am….Some days, some rare days, I just want what everyone else wants.’ And so begins her journey – her personal encounters with the medical world (able to offer nothing) and a love affair with an unnamed partner, a relationship that has to cope with the gooseberry of pain. Thorpe’s text is at once spare, sparse and clipped, like juddering flashes of ache; and then there is long flowing monologue, a torrent of words to describe love in a pained body. Throughout the play, startling images, shapes and shadows are thrown on to a series of eight plain, grey slabs through which lights can be cast. Against a plain dark stage, the largely monochrome projections – including the words of the play – provide a running commentary on the text. McPake’s performance is beautifully nuanced – from heart-breaking pathos to bitter anger. She has a magnetic stage presence, shining eyes allowing a window into a wracked soul.
Towards the end of the play, the relationship reaches breaking point – literally – as the actor riffs on the subject on her lover’s understandable but hopeless offers of help. We hear a torrent of ‘Have you tried’ suggestions that are treated with increasing anger and mania. There is bittersweet comedy here too. – ‘Have you tried interstellar travel, casual racism, cold baths…’ There was also an audiovisualisation of a peak pain episode that will stay in my mind for a very long time. There is gentleness and humanity, hope and despair. Above all there is the nearest thing to the almost impossible – a portrayal of what someone else's pain might sound, look and feel like.