Reviews ManchesterNational Published 6 July 2019

Review: Wrestling the Walrus at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

28 June - 6 July, then touring

(En)acting care: James Varney writes on relaxed environments, care and memory in 154 Collective’s Hodgkiss Award-winning multimedia show.

James Varney
Leanne Rowley and Nik Wood-Jones in Wrestling the Walrus at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Design, Hannah Sibai; lighting design, Chris Withers; video, Fabric Lenny and Yvonne Roberts. Photo: Yvonne Roberts.

Leanne Rowley and Nik Wood-Jones in Wrestling the Walrus at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Design, Hannah Sibai; lighting design, Chris Withers; video, Fabric Lenny and Yvonne Roberts. Photo: Yvonne Roberts.

Wrestling the Walrus is an emotional story about two people who meet on a park bench and tell stories about their lives.

Sometimes I manage to talk to strangers and it changes my day. Pretty recently two separate men over forty have had long conversations at me about Moss Side. It was very important to one of them to tell me about a chicken shop round the corner from where I live. And my small world is expanded a little through intense, unexpected interactions. It’s romantic to think public spaces give us something in common and allow us to connect, but they also highlight to me the distances across which we connect to each other.

It can be easy to get mixed-up about the order things happen in, but it doesn’t matter because the play is all about what it is like to feel confused sometimes.

When Mog shares his objects, invested with memories and stories, he flits between sincerity and fantasy. It’s hard to know which stories he sincerely believes, which he has made up (if any), and which he wants Gracie to know he has made up. In any case, when he is telling them he is inviting her into something, asking for an investment in exchange for a shared journey. If you like, Mog is performing a one-to-one theatre show up on the bench, on that hill. He plays with reality because reality is fluid. The distance between truth and stories is shorter, but harder to see.

It can be easy to get mixed-up but it doesn’t matter because it is sometimes.

Watching Wrestling the Walrus I am sat in a dark room with strangers, watching the acting out of care, the consequences of compassion. Illness is not a metaphor, it’s a matter of fact. As Gracie and Mog struggle with his condition, they labour together, become exhausted together, break through together. Mog is not a burden Gracie must bear and Gracie is not a duty-bound, faithful daughter. They are allies always. It is in both their interests to fight the deterioration of memory because they both rely on it to exist. If they cease to recognise each other, be thankful for the other’s presence, who are they?

The order things happen in doesn’t matter.

The performance I attend is the ‘Relaxed’ or ‘Dementia Friendly’ performance. It’s a matinée, the house lights are only dimmed instead of taken down all the way, the audience are told we should feel free to leave or wander about during the performance, the doors are left open, there are some babies in the audience, the performers introduce themselves before they begin. I think there should always be babies in the audience. As a combination of the time of day, the relaxed performance, the babies and the tone of the show, Wrestling the Walrus feels like a load of grown-ups have gathered in a room to play pretend. The normal mechanisms through which an audience are encouraged to suspend their disbelief are removed. Instead we must invest ourselves in the act of playing pretend happening in front of us. I think it’s far more impressive and magical to be able to share that imagination space with a bunch of strangers (especially adults – adults like to pretend they’re mature).

The play is all confused.

I live in a country which devalues care. It is stupid but true that Gracie is lucky to be able to look after Mog. It is bitter luck. She is lucky that she can get cover at work, that there are good days, that things aren’t worse. Her luck, though, is in the face of economically thankless domestic, caring labour. We live in a country where a sudden illness can be the thin end of the wedge of losing control of your life. Without wealth or infrastructure to support us, illness might take the energy of those closest to you, too. It might become the thinking behind everything you do.

It can be the order but the play is all.

If theatre is ‘a social form,’ like I keep banging on about, then it is a place where we can model the world we want to walk back into, when we leave the space of pretending. Traditional theatrical structure is optimistic; after climax or cataclysm, there is always a world of some sort to go back to. Whatever journey we have been on, and we have been on it together, we are released back to the world, and however we fit into it. If we are changed by our journey, we carry that change with us; the world is different now.

It can be easy to get confused sometimes.

Illness exposes a flank to oppression. 154 Collective’s relaxed presentation of Wrestling the Walrus reminds me of the value of care. Care can be as small as listening; it can be the creation of a space where people are not excluded. In the free sheet, the Collective say, “We particularly want to welcome people who might sometimes feel a bit anxious or worried about coming to the theatre, so we have tried to do a few things to make it feel fine!” The rest of the free sheet introduces the conventions of the space, the performance languages used, and the whole of the plot. It also uses the sentence, “It can be easy to get mixed-up about the order things happen in, but it doesn’t matter because the play is all about what it is like to feel confused sometimes.”

It can be easy but it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.

Wrestling the Walrus plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 6 July, before touring to ARC Stockton and The Yard, London. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Wrestling the Walrus at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Show Info


Directed by Dan Mallaghan

Written by 154 Collective

Cast includes Nik Wood-Jones, Leanne Rowley; Emma Davies (video); James Dey, Hayley Youell and Nick Lewis (musicians)

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