Brighton Festival 2016
Can I Start Again Please tells parallel narratives in parallel languages (English & British Sign Language) which intersect, diverge & build to create a mesmerising mix of verbal and visual theatre.
The piece desiccates and dissects childhood trauma via an exploration of Wittgenstein and semantics. What is being investigated is the power and failings of language – language that tells and hide truths – sparring across the heard and the unheard, the spoken and the unspoken.
The script is poetic and full of humour and is performed by Sue MacLaine and Nadia Nadarajah with a bright, coursing and relaxed reciprocity.
What do you do when there are no words to describe the trauma of betrayal and suffering at the hands of those who are meant to protect you? How can you move on when the inferiority of language gags your tongue?
Wittgenstein, who is often referred to and quoted in this piece, said ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, and this quote forms the central axis of the piece. This quote sums up the place where many survivors of sexual abuse find themselves, and the piece represents the lurid struggle to fight against that.
This piece is written by Sue MacLaine, and is performed by herself and another actor, Nadia Nadarajah, who speaks almost entirely in sign language. It seems that Nadarajah is translating what MacLaine is saying, but it is also clear that there are some things she cannot or will not translate. The rapport between the pair is fluid and though they seldom look at one another, it is clear they are finely attuned to one another.
This blend of sign language and spoken word is an incredible way to explore the tension of being unable to vocalise the trauma of sexual violence, and perhaps also symbolises the silence and secrecy that surrounds the abuse while it is happening.
MacLaine speaks in very measured, hypnotic tones, hardly ever allowing much emotion into her voice. This is clearly a stylistic decision, and largely works well, as the emotion and dynamism is expressed in the physical language of Nadarajah. The only issue I had with this stylised speech is that it did at times become overly hypnotic, and it was easy to zone out of the content.
It is a still piece; the women sit onstage in long dresses that pool around their feet, and would make it impossible to walk. They are composed and elegant, and very occasionally stand or aggressively ring bells, at the times where language simply does not work.
All the while they are also unspooling an unbroken sheet of paper from between them, which is deliberate and ritualistic – this being as much a part of the set as anything else, and giving a strong impression that these women are two parts of the same person – telling the same story, even though it may not always looks that way.
This is not an explicit piece in any way, references to sexual violence are barely there – instead one must read between the lines to get to the heart of the matter. It is a skilful thing to do to make a piece about such an emotive and sensitive subject, without being overly metaphorical or brutal. Even more impressive is making a piece about one’s own experiences, as MacLaine has done, and I am sure it has been a long journey to get to this place, and the performance is another step in the healing process.