The two characters of Tether both live to run. They’re determined and talented, but they’re also both damaged and difficult. Mark is an able-bodied Olympic hopeful marathon runner who fails to qualify for 2012 and all but gives up. His girlfriend suggests he volunteers to guide Becky, a blind runner. To run in competitions, Mark and Becky will be joined at the wrists by a short red ‘tether’ – “like a three-legged race with your hands” – as Mark warns Becky of the turns, inclines and surfaces that lie in her path. But Becky is sarcastic, headstrong and infuriated by her dependence on another to do the thing she loves. And Mark is, predictably, hopeless. It’s hard enough negotiating language around Becky, let alone providing crucial advice at speed. But when he discovers that the ‘guide’ role could be a route towards a gold medal, Mark becomes determined that the two of them will compete in the Paralympics.
Tether is a new play by Isley Lynn (of 2013’s Lean and Little Stitches from earlier this year). She’s also a friend of mine. I hadn’t read the script before seeing it at Underbelly, and I’m incredibly glad to have experienced it first in the context of this strong production from director Bethany Pitts. Lynn’s text is comprised largely of snatches of conversation between its two characters while they run, or just before they set off. Its dialogue is practical, terse and colloquial, and Lee Drage and Maisie Greenwood perfectly inhabit these physical individuals who express themselves best in motion and endurance – culling every actor’s gesture in favour of an athlete’s movement.
The production is also remarkable for the casting of Greenwood, a partially-sighted actor in the role of Becky. She talks about the experience of doing the show on Exeunt’s podcast interview from earlier this month – she and Drage also discuss doing pre-show ‘touch-tours’ for partially-sighted and blind audience members so they bring tactile information to their experience of the performance.
Greenwood and Drage are – without a doubt – the fittest company at the Fringe. The show runs for 60 minutes – and so do they, almost. They’re each hooked to a pile of stage weights by a thick bungee rope of two or three metres in length. So when they run, they’re pushing against the floor, driving forward and coming straight at the audience, rather than the up-and-down bounce of the on-the-spot jog.
Drage and Greenwood are so good at running (not only physically but narratively – the change gears effortlessly from a scene where they have been running for minutes to another where they have been running for hours) that their ability to run and run doesn’t surprise for a long time – I didn’t notice it particularly, until forty minutes in, when I realised that by this stage in proceedings I would be a quivering wreck, wrapped Looney Tunes-style in a bungee cord far upstage.
This staging also has a subtler effect – because we face them (and because their route is imaginary, of course) we cannot see what’s ahead of them any more than Becky can. We can’t see the curve Mark anticipates: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Turn!”, the spectators at the side of the course, or the oncoming vehicle on a country lane. The play cuts down our experience, not with a haphazard blindfold but by narrowing its visual focus for extended sections to the reach of Becky’s hands. Jon McLeod’s sound and music contribute to this with the pulsing but sparse soundtrack suitable to a sports narrative, with sudden and jarring naturalistic sound-cues – every decision emphasising, for sighted members of the audience like me, the reliance on the visual to experience something which Becky senses entirely differently – a freedom of movement enjoyed despite the completely different relationship to space.
It’s a natural thought given the subject, and there’s certainly a radio play in the story. There’s probably even a feature film, and I’d relish the prospect of spending more time with Lynn’s characters in either medium, but the physical language of this production is its strength, its reason for being staged. Is there such a thing as visual or aural tactility? The sense of touch conveyed at a distance, by light and sound? The overriding sensation of watching Tether is one of physical tension – the lactic tug of tired limbs, of plastic cutting into wrists, of breath and choppy momentum, of every security in the next step being an illusion, but surging forward, urgent, regardless.