Getting on for 18 months of mental and emotional drama married with enforced isolation and a resulting lack of physical and social contact has left many of us feeling unmotivated, mentally sluggish and creatively stunted. Covid brain fog is most definitely a thing. As the world tries to return to some kind of normality, some of us are still flailing about trying to pull together the strands of our former selves — wondering if our brains and bodies will ever be able to do the things they once did.
Shôn Dale-Jones’s new show with National Theatre Wales, Possible, leans heavily on these themes. One strand of the performance, live-streamed from Newport’s The Riverfront, pulls on his creative — and general — inertia as Covid hits and many of his projects are cancelled. Yet, amazingly, the pre-Covid show he was working on with NTW gets the greenlight to continue. Possible, then, charts its own creation from the embers of an earlier show in development about love. Dale-Jones recounts his struggles for ideas and inspiration amid multiple crises: being forced to sell a much-loved home, concerns about and the death of elderly relatives, and his own mental struggles and distractions. We’re even made a party to his mixed feelings about his correspondence with NTW’s artistic director Lorne Campbell about the piece’s halting progress.
‘What the fuck just happened?’ he injects early in the show. Quite. Dale-Jones is an exceptional storyteller, delicately weaving together multiple narratives, deftly flitting between them as he tightens the threads and brings the narratives together around a central theme, stitching a picture of his pandemic mental state. His direct-to-camera delivery works perfectly in the live-stream format, creating intimacy and poignancy – something traditional plays sometimes struggle to capture on camera. His sometimes-earnestness and always-openness makes him a never less than appealing and engaging companion for 75 minutes. Even his occasional fumbles speak endearingly to the Covid befuddlement he describes.
Stefanie Mueller’s production adds animation and film (by Bear Thompson) and original music performed live by John Biddle to create a visual feast alongside the main course of a man chatting about his love for his family and his Covid woes. The animation and video design is expansive and vividly realised, creating a sense of the kaleidoscopic dreamscape he describes, but it rarely adds to the emotional heft of the show, all of which still rests on the immediacy of Dale-Jones’s delivery as he wanders from his spot inside a video-screen cube to a dark spot beyond it on the stage. The animation’s presence sometimes smack of the desire to artificially create scenes that can be constantly cut to and from. Maybe we are all too fuddled to concentrate but it also suggests a lack of faith in the audience’s ability to concentrate and/or the medium’s capacity to be engaging across the 75 minutes without constant fresh visual stimulus.
Biddles’ original music, however, gives the show a real, sometimes bizarre, pulse, as its zany, genre-defying sounds match and underline the show’s fragmented dreamscape. The musician is listed as a collaborator and his work on the project is also recounted during the performance. Indeed, the music, which is at turns surprising, serious and silly, feels much more embedded and essential.
Dale-Jones’ narrative threads take in the isolation antics of his elderly mother, who is living alone in north Wales and who has taken to baking scones after midnight; the resulting drama in his siblings’ WhatsApp group called ‘Keep Calm’; the death of his father-in-law from dementia in Switzerland; a finances-enforced house move; creative inertia and the search for inner peace. They feel relatable and are heart-warmingly resolved: the house move reveals the joy of turning a new house into a home; a suffering relative is free from their pain; his mother, it turns out, is coping just fine — much better than her anxious adult children.
But there is a strand that sticks out amid the Covid chaos: Dale-Jones’s confrontation with his own long-suppressed memory of suffering an incident of child abuse while at a boarding school. It arrives late, and appears occasionally as a brief, disjointed, unclear recollection that bubbles malevolently away beneath Possible’s surface in much the same way he describes the memory working its way to the front of his mind amid the pandemic, during which he can’t stop his mind unwantedly ‘chatting away to him.’
Yet this darker, surprising and slow revelation offers real insight into the ways the pandemic-enforced ending of our daily distractions led to emotional turmoil for many, as they were forced to confront uncomfortable issues and truths. But it feels a little underdeveloped. Of course, no one should feel creatively compelled to delve into trauma but here it screams out to be at the heart of the show. Instead, it feels slightly at odds with the show’s relentlessly perky tone and on the periphery of its comfortably resolved narratives. Possible is always charming, relatable and authentic, but often just short of profound.
Possible runs online via National Theatre Wales until 13 July. More info here.