Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 20 April 2012

Autobiographer

Toynbee Studios ⋄ 17th April – 5th May 2012

The many faces of Flora.

Lois Jeary

How can the human mind even begin to adequately comprehend a loss of cognition? Since dementia manifests itself differently for every sufferer, the task of understanding its impact on identity must feel like an impossible search. Melanie Wilson has approached the subject by painting a portrait of one woman, Flora, rather than showing a study of a medical condition, and through stuttering sound and faltering movement, Autobiographer attempts to make sense of a life flickering in and out of focus.

A canopy of lightbulbs fizz overhead like suspended synapses, the mind’s electrical activity played out on stage, illuminating the pattern of Flora’s thoughts. Under them we are cocooned in Wilson’s immersive soundscape that shivers around the walls, transporting us to snowy vistas, echoing corridors and most hauntingly, the inner thoughts of the actresses that are gently amplified around us. This all adds an essential dynamic to a performance where design is arguably more evocative than the words spoken. The text itself is deeply poetical, full of recurring images of figures, creatures and landscapes which only occasionally veer into the everyday. These moments of normality allow the audience a brief and much needed grasp on the narrative, which otherwise feels as frustratingly obtuse as another person’s dreams.

Flora is represented at different ages by four actresses concurrently, and on each face we see etched a slightly different response to what is happening in the mind. The youngest, fleeting Flora is untouched by the confusion that starts to show itself on her teenage self, played by Alice Lamb. As a young woman, Wilson imbibes Flora with a steely focus which matures into Penelope McGhie’s harder, dominant portrayal, from whom we get a greater sense of frustration. In Janet Henfrey’s eyes this resistance finally melts away, showing instead the warmth and openness of a grandmother.

By presenting us with a whole life in one powerful stage image, Autobiographer challenges the idea that time marches forward and life is lived in a linear direction, highlighting instead the way in which dementia makes the past present and the here-and-now a distant blur. When Flora observes ‘our imagination and our dreams outstrip our bodies’ it shows how we are all essentially a jumble of identities and not merely the face we currently present to the world. Only occasionally do the women catch sight of each other as they drift around the stage, bringing about all too infrequent dramatic moments of communion that shift the pace of a somewhat monotonous piece. Instead, Flora’s most rewarding relationship is with the audience.

There is a particular sensation I recall from conversations with my grandfather in the later stages of his dementia. It is as if I am looking down on myself as I patiently repeat the same answers, feigning interest, forcing laughs, as his mind gets stuck on a distant riff and identical thoughts and stories reverberate again and again. As he repeats himself with utter conviction, it is as if he is chatting happily in multiple parallel universes, which only I am struggling to straddle. This is the feeling that comes rushing back as I watch the tender moments of engagement between Flora and the audience sat around her. Flora’s repeated appeals to us for information lodged somewhere in her mind are answered with awkward hesitation, polite indulgence, or not at all. The line ‘we as a society need to work out how we’re going to help each other live with this’ screams out from the programme notes. In these tense moments Autobiographer carefully confronts us with precisely that challenge.

Wilson orchestrates the most delicate connections – between Flora and her self, between audience and performer, between individuals and the surrounding environment – which empower rather than demand us to think about the content of the life presented on stage. Although it always feels slightly too delicate to be fully tangible, and risks losing us a couple of times along the way because of this, Autobiographer successfully presents us with one reality of dementia and our attitudes to it. ‘I am still here’, Flora asserts, as the lights fade to nothing: the question is, who is she needing to convince?

Read Diana Damian’s interview with Melanie Wilson.

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Lois Jeary

Lois holds an MA in Text and Performance, taught jointly between RADA and Birkbeck. In addition to directing and assistant directing for theatre, she also works as a freelance television news journalist for Reuters and has previously contributed to The Guardian.

Autobiographer Show Info


Produced by Fuel

Written by Melanie Wilson

Cast includes Janet Henfrey, Alice Lamb, Penelope McGhie and Melanie Wilson

Link http://www.artsadmin.co.uk/toynbee-studios

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