Combining the testimonies of Black British women in trauma recovery, the movement of Heather Agyepong, sound by Donato Wharton, and projection by Gillian Tan, The Body Remembers explores how trauma lives and moves through the body. It is a contemplative experience, with the audience invited to respond with pencil and paper, and stay in the space after to decompress, as well as to witness Agyepong’s movement.
Throughout the performance Agyepong’s movements are both stiff and languid, full of arcs caught and juddering mid-swing. Even at her most flowing it feels like gestures come from a place of tension, her body taught and alert. Her dance constantly bounces from completely abstract to almost mime-like, with everyday gestures returning again and again. A wave, or a nod, or a shout suddenly surface. It is nice in these moments that it doesn’t feel like these familiar movements are supposed to communicate a prescribed message or narrative to us, but are instead moments of meaning bursting through.
This feels like a through line of the piece – it is less about trying to tell the audience something specific about the body and trauma and more about giving us space to think about those things. Throughout the audience are prompted to think about our own bodies – what we can feel, what we notice. There are some invitations in the piece that don’t quite work, more because of the performance space than in any deficiency in the how they are extended. Space is a little cramped, meaning that while the audience are invited to sit on the floor, on a chair, or stand as they prefer, where they end up is primarily decided by where there is space to fit in, and anyone thinking of taking up the invitation to move during the performance is rather constrained both by space, and blocking the view of those behind them. Despite this The Body Remembers is very effective at immersing the audience in a space of exploration, encouraging them to ask questions both around the subjects of the piece, and how they relate to our own bodies.
While the performance doesn’t have a grand arc of meaning, it is full of little ebbs and flows, both in the ways Agyepong moves, and the testimonies we hear. We hear about these women’s experiences of panic, of pain and fatigue in their bodies, of doctors telling them there is nothing wrong, of feeling like they have to keep up a performance for everyone else. The collection of recordings is, unsurprisingly, particularly good at weaving a complex patchwork of people’s feelings about their bodies – for some it can offer them freedom, or comfort, for others it is a site of constant conflict, while many have experiences which combine, or fall between these two extremes. The objects arranged onstage, which we are invited to explore after the end of the performance, also give a varied view of different ways of confronting pain and trauma, from the comfort of teddy bears, to the inspiration of art and religion, the reflection of a journal to the practicality of painkillers – they once again emphasise the show’s refusal to prescribe one view of trauma.
Tan’s projections perfectly support what is going on onstage, and are perhaps some of the most delicately beautiful uses of projection I’ve seen in theatre. At key moments they serve both to draw our focus in and allow our minds to wander. Colours meld and flow across the screen, occasionally joined by large close ups of bodies, at rest or doing gentle movement. The positioning of the projector also means that throughout Agyepong is both mirrored and magnified in her shadow behind her, eventually joined by further reflections in the projection itself. Agyepong’s body being joined by her silhouette means we are constantly given different details to focus on, different lenses to view her movement through.
Each element of The Body Remembers is masterfully combined to make an effective space for reflection and exploration. By approaching everything with a sense of utmost care, the piece manages to create something beautiful and difficult, delicate and prickly.
The Body Remembers ran at Tobacco Factory Theatres from 12-13 November. More info here.