This one is a bit like marmite. You’re either going to hate Natalie Abrahami’s new production of Arthur Kopit’s made-for-radio play or love it for its unparallel way of constructing a temporary experience of a stroke patient who suffers from aphasia. This 90-minute play has you at the edge of the seat attempting to understand what it really going on in front of you. Emotions are on overdrive; it’s a mixture of confusion, empathy, uncertainty, and optimism, which kicks in once the play gets moving.
During the first 15 minutes, I was ready to give up, but by the end of it I felt I had learned a lot more and was pleased I stayed to see it all. Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play hasn’t been seen on the stage for 30 years. His father suffered a debilitating stroke, which inspired Kopit to write Wings. Emily Stilson is an amalgam of two women who were both patients at the same rehab centre his father was being treated at.
Olivier award-winning actress Juliet Stevenson takes on the role of Emily Stilson and most of the time she is in the air, flying around in a harness. There’s no doubt that she had to train beforehand, but when she is balanced on the ground, it is only momentary – she’d be back in the air before you knew it. The play watches Stilson go from complete lack of self-expression, unable to construct a sentence, to succeeding in a speech therapy programme. Why the use of a harness? The character was a wing-walker in her earlier days, supposedly.
The most we see of Stevenson on the ground is when her character’s ability to remember and speak has advanced, yet for the first hour it is a hard and agonising time with clinicians and doctors asking her basic questions, such as ‘what’s the name of the first American president?’ or ‘Mrs. Stilson, can you hear me?’ It’s uncomfortable to watch at times with her spasming, stuttering and stammering under pressure, slowly trying to recollect her patchy memory of her days as an aviatrix.
Stevenson brings the medical and psychological case closer to home, and she’s brilliant. There on stage, she throws a vase of flowers, shouts, wails and creates somersaults in the air. Ultimately she convinces the audience of her character’s fixation with memory and speech. It’s abundantly clear that Stevenson spent a tremendous time working hard to get to grips with the harness (no pun intended) and remember some fairly obscure poetic lines, which often doesn’t make sense to those sat in the auditorium. Yet, she made it work. Her confidence and physical strength are on her side – it’s hard to believe she is 61 year’s old.
The rest of the cast had small parts, but put together they captured the stifling and imprisoning ways a hospital can make patients feel, more so if they are stuck in their own minds like Stevenson’s character. Lorna Brown plays a poignant part too as Stilton’s speech therapist and acts as the light at the end of Stilton’s journey in the tunnel.
The stage itself is minimal. It is entirely black with a small platform moving back and forth with video clips of a plane looking down at the world. It’s like a fuzzy memory, of Stilson flying thousands of feet up in the air, that was stolen away by her illness.
You’ll be sucked into Stilson’s world and spat out again, like a pressure cooker; it’s probably the same sensation for anyone who had frustratingly lost a couple of years and is relieved to be out of their hole. The final scene, where Stilson and her speech therapist manage to have a full conversation, starting with remembering the word ‘snow’ just by holding some in her hand, is touching and cathartic, which for 90 frantic minutes is what the audience need.
Not all theatre is about the ‘and they lived happily ever after’ factor. This one probes and challenges you, and encourages you to think about those who suffer (past and present) of such medical condition which affects both speech and language and Abrahami’s production might have done the trick.