The Shape of the Pain by Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe uses sound, colour and movement to communicate a bodily experience typically understood to be ‘beyond language’. To create the show, the words of Bagshaw have been interpreted by composer Melanie Wilson into an amorphous fluctuating soundscape of distorted fizzes and hums. In turn, video and lighting designer Joshua Pharo has saturated the stage with sanguine red, sickly yellow and a whirling zebra crossing of black and white, black and white, black and white.
I now attempt the fairly thankless task of writing about a piece of theatre that is most successful in its non-verbal moments. Without colours, images and sounds at my disposal, I clumsily grasp at the electric storm cloud and drag it back down into the very same limited mode of communication that the play deems insufficient. Rest assured – I appreciate the idiocy of this.
Or, as the script performed by Hannah McPake would probably say, I appreciate the fucking idiocy of this. The voice in The Shape of the Pain likes an emphatic ‘fuck’ added into a sentence. Verb, noun or adjective, it’s always ‘fuck’. I find this mildly false as an aspect of speech. Truly sweary people tend to be creative with their shittings, fuckings and bollockings. But the repetition of ‘fuck’ effectively transmits both the monotony of living with chronic pain and the often irrepressible anger – at the condition, at your own body, at the world and that white bearded guy on his white cloud ordaining this. Towards the end of the piece, the narrative gives way to a bombardment of ‘have you tried…’ platitudes. Encased in a swirling monochrome zoetrope, McPake recites the incessant impotent advice provided by people not suffering from the condition. Approaching the level of hysteria, regular ingratiating advice (‘Have you tried reiki?’ ‘Have you tried hot baths?’) blends with absurd humour (‘Have you tried casual racism?’) and damagingly ineffective finger-pointing (‘Have you tried just not feeling like this?’).
As someone in frequent physical pain, I related to this part of the show the most. The hideous ‘helpful’ claptrap people come out with (most frequently: ‘Have you tried yoga?’) that is packaged as caring yet shifts the responsibility for the condition onto the sufferer. As though, if you just did your stretches like a good little girl or realised how bad people have it in warzones (‘Have you tried checking your privilege?’ intones McPake), then you wouldn’t be in this mess and you wouldn’t be wasting other people’s time being so damn needy. In this small but not insignificant way, The Shape of the Pain is rebelliously revolutionary in recognising and expressing the anger and frustration of chronic pain.
Yet for all its focus on Bagshaw’s specific experience of intense, never abating pain, this show is about more than an individual and more than a medical condition. The central storyline of trying to communicate pain to a partner whilst they try to understand, is almost as universal as it gets. Walking back to the hotel with him alongside, I realise I’ve never really tried to get my husband to understand what the experience of chronic physical pain is like. What feels more important than understanding is the attempt at caring, despite not knowing or sharing the experience. And isn’t that how it should be with basically anything another person goes through? Familiarity or understanding shouldn’t be a prerequisite to sympathy or empathy, or whatever other word you want to ascribe to ‘giving-a-shit-ness’. When words, sounds or colours fail to describe, you can still just care.
The Shape of the Pain is on at Summerhall until 26 August 2017. Click here for more details.