EDINBURGH 2019: BWW Review: THE AFFLICTED, Summerhall
The Afflicted, from new Scottish theatre collective Groupwork, uses dance, physical theatre and multimedia to tell the story of the Hope River Girls.
It's inspired by real-life events taking place in Le Roy, New York, when many girls at the same high school became suddenly afflicted with tics - twitching and stuttering uncontrollably without any cause. Media descended on the town and doctors came up with competing diagnoses. In the end, was it all just a case of mass hysteria?
The piece is performed by four young girls. They speak into microphones with one voice, playing the researcher behind this show, telling the story of the Hope River girls and their research trip years later to find out what happened, and what became of the girls. It focuses on the four who were the first to become afflicted, and who never recovered.
The performers often move and dance in unison, reflecting a pack mentality of sorts, the type of influence that could lead to a case of Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI), the now more accepted term for mass hysteria. The girls are given solos as their individual stories are shared. The dance is full of the emotion, anger, confusion and grief of teenage girlhood, and it carries powerfully throughout the entire production.
Video interviews with real doctors involved in the case are shown, as well as videos of our four girls. The use of technology creates a true crime documentary style feel to the piece, at times lecturing, at times fear-mongering. Though there is no actual crime, an eerie atmosphere is created.
Feminist themes come through alongside those of the occult, with comparisons to the Salem witch trials, and other outbursts of mass hysteria throughout history. It explores how communities respond to sickness, the unexplained and the abnormal. Though we would believe it to have moved on over time, the Hope River community, and the Le Roy community, shut down, blamed outside influence.
In one of the show's best sequences, the girls try to speak up, but each is shouted down (silently, through movement) and sucked back into the group. This is a powerful performance, with much to say, and much to be learned from.