Like much theatre finally being performed in person, Skin Hunger is a direct response to the pandemic. It’s inspired by the hug tunnels that were hung in Brazilian care homes, these large clear plastic sheets with arm-shaped slots designed to safely allow for, at the very least, ersatz intimacy: an almost touch, a sheathed hug. Dante or Die’s site-specific piece recreates the intensity of these interactions through one-on-one experiences: three performers each deliver their respective monologues directly to one audience member at a time. Skilfully designed and really thoughtfully performed, Skin Hunger is an obvious product of lockdown and interrogates the intricacy and importance of human touch.
As one of three audience members, you travel your own colour-coded pathway through Stone Nest’s stunning 19th century Welsh Chapel, encountering each performer as you go. Each barriered by their own plastic cages, Rachel-Leah Hosker, Oseloka Obi, and Terry O’Donovan are visible to each other the entire time, but exist in isolation. Khadija Raza’s design (with additional design by Jemima Robinson) deserves high praise here, letting the atmosphere of this old Presbyterian church evoke a sense of sanctuary, while also instilling a type of liminality as one moves through the performance space. With the plastic hanging from the gallery, the design also implicitly gestures to the act of repurposing public/community spaces, a practice that seems particularly familiar given the current number of temporary testing and vaccination centres in our parks, gyms, halls.
The show does demand a high level of buy-in from audience members, and is perhaps not for those who want to wade slowly in the shallows for their first re-encounter with in-person theatre. But it’s well worth it for those who want to dive in, head first. Each monologue casts the audience in a role, and each asks for a moment of (Covid-safe) touch. In Ann Akinjirin’s gentle Our Hands, Hosker speaks to you as one of the loves of her life, divulging to you how giddy and confident your hands on hers make her feel. Likewise, O’Donovan in Tim Crouch’s The Sessions casts you as a longtime partner, but here he is pleading for you to take him back after a split. Both are performed with conversational ease and a perceptive naturalism, which means O’Donovan and Hosker are able to quickly forge close bonds with their audience and elicit feelings of love, loss, desperation and anger.
It’s Sonia Hughes’s Touch The Flesh that really stands out, breathtakingly weaving together a father’s Alzheimer’s, a daughter’s response, and an actor’s perspective on the material. It’s hauntingly moving and best captures both the unpredictability of touch, of when it might come next and of what it represents, and the feeling that this semblance of skin contact, this almost-touch, is both never enough and sometimes all we ever get. Obi masterfully delivers Hughes’s destabilising, grief-spiked text with absolute control and complete sincerity.
Occasionally, there is some confusion over how much interactivity is really on offer. It takes a while to gauge how much freedom you as an audience member do or do not have in steering these conversations. It turns out not very much; the monologues are seemingly quite fixed, lightly peppered with requests for you to repeat after the performers or answer simple questions, perhaps because the performers are restricted to a precise timeline so that they all finish together. Crouch’s piece in particular, with its most overt request for touch, feels like it needs more time for one to feel fully engaged in the complexities of the relationship, the magnitude of the plea, and implications of refusal. The glowing intensity and intimacy of each piece is also slightly dimmed by the fact you are able to peripherally see and hear the performers repeat themselves to the other two audience members.
But there’s something joyful in the fact that any minor issues are direct results of the challenges of in-person theatre. Skin Hunger does well to remind us what theatre can do: its ability to provoke deep, intimate connections between audience member and performer.
Skin Hunger runs at Stone Nest till 27th June. More info here.