April 26, 2010

Girl with no Words

Girl with no Words – listening to the language of cutting - is now coming to Wellington following performances in Auckland, Wanaka, Queenstown and Clyde and at RNZCGP conference 2009. 

A multi-media theatre performance exploring mental distress communicated through self-mutilation and our response to it. Supported by a Mental Health Foundation. Girl with no Words is coming to the Llott theatre, Wellington Town Hall on 6/7 May 2010. 

Written, directed and performed by Gilly Pugh, John Schwarz, Lucy O'Hagan and Lizzi Yates. 

Reviewed by Mary Anne Bourke, 12 Sep 2009
Fear not, Girl With No Words: Listening to the language of cutting is not the latest sensationalist ploy contrived to lure you into the theatre, but a meticulously researched multimedia presentation that explores the voiceless expression of mental distress in a bid to expand awareness and understanding. 

Opening at the Conference of the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners before embarking on a nine-week national tour, the piece asserts itself as a fresh resource in on a subject that has festered for too long under the carpet. Starting as it means to go on, it speaks as pointedly to health professionals as it will to the general public. 

Lucy O'Hagan, a GP from Otago (with a specialist interest in the philosophy and ethics of medicine) works with actors Gilly Pugh and John Schwarz to present a mix of live action, documentary video, projected artwork (by Lizzi Yates) and song that takes us on the journey though the health system with a disturbed adolescent. 

Briar Rose Edwards is a young woman who slices her arms with a razor blade whenever the anguish she cannot articulate becomes too much to bear. This is not a suicide attempt, nor even so much as a cry for help, but an act of survival - that no one can understand. 

There is, of course, no simulation of 'cutting' but we see the effects of it, mostly on Briar's brittle, perfectionist mother and hand-wringing father. That Briar persists with her self-injury in the face of interventions from a series of robotic doctors and self-satisfied therapists, as well as her peers, both supportive and destructive (in multiple roles played by Pugh and Schwarz), is a key point of the piece. It is clear that these interactions exacerbate rather than alleviate Briar's turmoil. 

The domestic and clinical drama is interspersed with documentary clips of interviews with professionals and academics giving their views on self-injury. These make for some rueful humour, as several exhibit a censorious anxiety, or resort to obfuscating jargon. An anthropologist and a sociologist offer astute - if conveniently academic - insights into the problem. Some trenchant testimonials from survivors offer hope. 

Set before a pair of transparent curtains, the piece is hugely informative by virtue of the wealth of experience accessed and displayed for us. Good use is made of a few props - such as a stuffed doll with no mouth that is pulled apart - and costume accessories changed over black to denote character. The big screen slides of Lizzie Yates' pencil drawings are highly expressive and work well as a sign of Briar's eventual progress towards articulation. 

I won't ruin it by telling you how the story ends. Suffice to say, judicious choices have been made of the various forms of human language to demonstrate this development. 

The show does occasionally leave something to be desired in terms of dramatic efficacy, e.g. Briar talks to the audience as much as anyone talks to anyone. This does not help to convey her inarticulateness. Also, the txting scenes: guys, why are they gazing at the txt on the big screen. Txters bend to the phones in their hands. Seriously, that bit sux :) 

It is billed as being 'collaboratively directed by The Silk Tent Theatre Company' and I have to say I believe it occasionally suffers from not having that 'outside eye' to recognise ways to pull and poke it into its best shape. However, its qualities of courage and compassion go a long way towards compensating for this. And I mean that to say a lot. 

It is intended to encourage us to listen and to speak, to share our stories without judging, and it definitely succeeds in what it sets out to do. In fact, it is salutary to see how far these qualities carry through and raise your consciousness - and about more than just 'cutting'. For, while at the outset, that act might seem difficult to understand, it can also be seen as simply one of the most graphic, and perhaps most honest, manifestations of the psychological isolation and fear of self that is so often 'medicated' in more socially accepted or 'cooler' ways, such as substance or alcohol abuse. 

It's worth getting the full message that this show has to offer, so I'd encourage you to get along when it comes to a wharenui near you. Your mind will be expanded and your spirit lifted. 

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