BWW Review: WINGS, Young Vic
Emily Stilson (Juliet Stevenson) is suspended in a void. She analyses this strange situation with wry perspicacity and occasional breathless panic. She's a prisoner, a specimen. She's fallen, trapped. She's flying.
American playwright Arthur Kopit's work entering the shattered, chaotic mind of a stroke victim was originally a radio drama, written for NPR in 1976 after his father suffered a stroke. His stage version retains some of the focus and interiority of radio, powerfully amplified by Natalie Abrahami's immersive production.
Emily was once a skilled pilot and daredevil wing-walker. Following a debilitating stroke that caused aphasia, she's initially confined to a bed, struggling to answer doctors' elementary questions or even nod. Yet her brain rages: of course she knows the answer, why can't they hear her?
Kopit switches in and out of her stream-of-consciousness confusion, demonstrating exactly why. Emily's speech is garbled, as she muddles words or struggles to reach for one - it's like reaching into that void. Sometimes she speaks nonsense, sometimes the doctors seem to. There's "a wall between me and others," she laments.
But by showing us both sides of the wall, Kopit makes an incisive point about the need to treat stroke sufferers with dignity; seeing the quick-witted, authoritative Emily subjected to brusque tests and infantilising language is distressing. So, too, is the lack of understanding about the horror of her world, in which the barriers of time and space have collapsed, and memory slithers out of her grasp.
This forced detachment is superbly physicalised through Stevenson's movement (credit to Anna Morrissey and Freedom Flying). In an extraordinary show of agility, the actress performs on wires throughout - sometimes just retaining a literal toehold on reality, sometimes careening through space. When frustrated, she flips upside down, squirming and contorting; when defeated, she flops and hangs motionless.
This vivid airborne articulacy (which will put this Christmas's Peter Pans to shame) is denied to her as she goes through the agonising process of recovery. How many days are there in the week? That takes painstaking counting on her fingers; Stevenson's Emily casually turns around while she does that, as if hoping to hide it from her ever-watchful doctor. How do you use a toothbrush? What is her son's name?
Speaking to her therapist, Amy, she asks how you find that connection - the path from seeing to naming or using something, without needing to touch or ponder. There's no easy answer. But her courage in groping through the dark recalls that fearless younger self, and gives this 65-minute piece some much-needed hope.
It's a magnetic turn from Stevenson, building both past and present Emily, verbally and physically, in what is - for much of the running time - close to a solo show. She conveys irritation, anguish, shrewd insight, and both the terror and dreamlike pleasure of oblivion; as she slips into a memory of her wing-walking, shedding her hospital gown to reveal a flying suit, it's thrillingly euphoric.
But there are also strong contributions from her castmates, particularly Lorna Brown as a firm but encouraging Amy, and Mary Sheen and Kelle Bryan as fellow patients in rehab - the former joyfully applauding each minor breakthrough, the latter a loud but well-meaning Jersey girl who used to be a successful chef, and whose youth introduces a different note of poignancy.
Abrahami's production further conveys Emily's experience through lights (Guy Hoare) that flicker and glare to punctuate confusion and alarm, and fragmented projections on diaphanous curtains. The latter are the only jarring note in Michael Levine's otherwise effective design, signalling their arrival and departure too noisily and pulling us out of Gareth Fry's carefully constructed soundscape.
Nevertheless, Stevenson's tour-de-force performance anchors a powerfully engrossing play that appeals for empathy even as it shows the challenge of maintaining that fragile connection.
Picture credit: Johan Persson