Brighton Fringe 2016
The Weird Sisters Theatre Company bring Charlotte Jones’ debut 1997 two-hander Airswimming to the Sweet Waterfront 2 Venue. Stephanie Goodfellow directs this two-hander with atmospheric music by Nigel Dams.
The Weird Sisters Theatre Company bring Charlotte Jones’ debut 1997 two-hander Airswimming to the Sweet Waterfront 2 Venue. Two women are incarcerated fifty years for being different. It’s realized in a tiny hot space close to the reality.
It’s 1924, but in a beat it’s also a time of Moulinex blenders. Dora Kitson and Persephone Baker or later Dorph and Porph (their creative alter egos) are locked up at St Dymphna’s for the Criminally Insane. In Dora’s case it’s partly for being ‘a cigar smoking monomaniac transsexual’ as Persephone first apostrophizes her; in Persephone’s for bearing a child out of wedlock. Dora’s been there since 1922; her military persona seems to cope better than Persephone’s denial of her ‘moral imbecility’: in effect her parents wall her up.
Persephone’s convinced she’s about to ‘come out’; the contrast between ‘just convalescing’ after childbirth and her parents’ inhumanity – their friend seduced Persephone – beggars belief. The two meet polishing brass, Dora admitting she’s not popular: of Persephone’s predecessor the deaf-mute: ‘her spitting gave me a clue…’
Both experience not only a wary then intense friendship over the years, but develop coping strategies that as presented don’t flinch from trauma or the occasional dottiness anyone would develop after long incarceration including Dora’s unravelling of Persephone’s giving birth. Persephone overcomes her qualms and offers Dora dancing lessons. In a few beats Dora decides she needs to trepan her own head via a book on the subject (but it’s not Trepanning for Beginners she complains) and tries plugging in the Moulinex to effect this.
We constantly morph back and forth in time, gradually moving forward from 1924, and the latter period bracketed by guesswork and Persephone’s fascination with Doris Day, to the extent that Alison Nicol playing her bursts heart-stoppingly into Day after Day standards, locating an apparent wholesomeness as refuge and alter-ego. Never mind Dora finally reveals that Doris is both ’bland’ and ‘a dyke’ – not usually appellations found side-by-side.
But Dora owns her own fragilities in Tanya Chainey’s slow-fused portrayal of a logical, forthright-seeming coper whose own mechanisms when they do falter, cascade in an arc. From role-models including Bolshevik women soldiers and a sense she should have died with her brothers in the Great War, Dora’s obsessions with figures and time gradually skew.
The play’s title chimes with the heart of a drama so attuned to the survival in all senses of two cruelly-used women who fuse imaginations as Dorph and Porph to start airswimming as if at recent Olympics’ synchronized events. There’s questions – Dora coaches Persephone in imaginary release scenarios; or the way Persephone sings Dora to sleep: the dominance shifts. Nicol sashays between vulnerability – she breaks down several times singing ‘My Secret Love’ and elsewhere to soaring effect – and tender watchfulness. This is exquisite, exceptional acting, the finest intimate cast I’ve seen so far this Festival.
‘What do we do now, now that we are happy?’ Estragon’s question – there’s a touch of Godot in Airswimming – bears an existential challenge when the 1970s and release looms. The creative route taken by Jones and the company here lead to frightening ambiguities.
There really is a period Moulinex in a box, indeed an unnerving array of authentic props used or dangled on a clothes-line. A much-applied wig finally tops a change of clothes involving Dora’s favourite regiment and Fifties dress as distinct from St Dymphna’s white-and-chocolate uniform.
Stephanie Goodfellow directs crisply with plenty of air around the swimming. Lighting gradates well in such a small space. Sensitive sound-design and music by Nigel Dams superimposes a far-off cell door clanking shut. Being cast out of an asylum bears its own incarceration.
The Weird Sisters’ Fewer Emergencies last year dazzled; Airswimming does so in depth and tenderness, reinforcing their gift for probing extremes with uncompromising texts. Anything this tiny ensemble does now is worth a detour.