Liz Richardson tells us at the beginning of SWIM that she didn’t make this show for herself, but rather for the friend she goes wild swimming with, a friend who is struggling through an unnamed grief. Sam Ward and Josie Dale-Jones, the two makers who made the show with her, are not wild swimmers, but they’re keen to figure out what it is that creates “that oomph feeling” Richardson speaks about so passionately. “Recently,” she says, “Swimming has been about sharing.” SWIM seeks to be as expansive and generous as the tingling feeling you get after a winter dip – but it remains oddly muted. It’s like wearing a wetsuit into the water when you’re desperate to feel the shock on bare skin.
This is partly down to the fact that Richardson’s friend remains a flickering enigma at the centre of the piece, twisting and twirling just out of reach like a leaf on water. We learn very little about her and her unexplained grief – one assumes out of respect for her privacy – but it’s to the point that she (and inevitably, the piece itself) feels enormously amorphous and out of reach. You begin to wonder if Richardson’s friend is just a proxy for Richardson herself. “Who’s this show for, Liz?” asks Dale-Jones at the climax of the piece, voice tinged with frustration. “Is it for her, or is it for you?” Richardson doesn’t answer. There’s certainly something interesting in Richardson’s self-awareness of SWIM’s insularity, but it’s never fully unpicked. Instead, the strand just floats away.
There are flashes of absolute, acute beauty which reflect the euphoric highs of wild swimming – Carmel Smickersgill’s live music twinkles and shimmers like sunlight on water, occasionally slipping into ghostly, dimmed ethereality like the shadow of branches over a riverbank, and Richardson’s monologues are textured and achingly poetic, even if they feel slightly like they’re being addressed somewhere over the audience’s heads. SWIM can sometimes feel like a dialogue purely between Richardson and her friend, taking place somewhere that the audience are not privy to.
And frustratingly, Dale-Jones and Ward seem almost completely extraneous to the action, often just sitting at the side of the stage and watching, occasionally asking Richardson questions about swimming. It’s disappointing, considering their prowess as performers and makers in their own right, to see them servicing a piece rather than being fully enmeshed into it. There’s a lovely piece of video footage which shows Ward and Dale-Jones struggling out of a lake after only a few seconds, gasping and yelling, while Richardson stubbornly picks her way in, alone. They’re there to provide a sense of balance to the piece, to offset the moments where Richardson seems utterly consumed by her friend’s grief, to needle into what it is exactly about wild swimming which alleviates psychological pain. The gulf between them is there for a reason, but more often than not it feels too enormous to allow SWIM to satisfyingly coalesce. You’re left paddling in the waves, but desperate for the plunge.
SWIM is on at Pleasance Courtyard until 26th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.