Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Emma Bailey is a modern day Madame Bovary, battling with a stifling middle-class lifestyle, thwarted dreams and untreatable depression. In desperation, she leaves her family behind to embark on a course of brain-altering therapy, documenting her journey through raw, beautiful poetry. Based on Sarah James’ poetry collection – Highly Commended, Forward Prizes 2015 – the narrative springs to life through subtle physicality where every environment is evoked, from train carriage to art gallery, kitchen sink to sterile clinic. Introspection and the powerful rhythms of poetry reveal that beauty and tenderness can exist even in pain.
“…this love is a frying of my insides, the curling edges of another’s bridal petticoat whose lace shape won’t be hacked to make a perfect daughter, wife or mother”
Emma, through poetry based narrative, takes us deeply into her inner life, her sensitivities and almost onomatopoeic experience of the minutiae of life around her. We see her, middle class, married with a young child, stifled, frustrated, waiting for something. We see her anxiety and depression escalate until, as detailed by the calm juxtaposition of the Psychiatrists voice over, she is diagnosed with moderate – severe depression and is calmly and coolly prescribed a course of treatment in a pioneering brain therapy, Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. We see her mania conclude in a passionate fling that later dissolves in scratchy cockroach bitterness. We hear her husband’s voice; comforting, domestic, worried, in everyday language bringing into sharp focus again the complex and visual poetic expression of Emma who seems to both shrink back from and rejoice in the sensory experiences of the everyday (“Into a kimono of steam”).
The stage is set with what looks like a climbing frame, bringing to mind at first glance frozen images of childhood, but that becomes the changeable setting for different scenes – the kitchen, the bedroom, the London tube, busy streets and the hospital treatment bed while her brain is pulsed with magnetic rays, the soundtrack ticking with visceral teeth jarring clarity. Vey Straker (Emma) doesn’t miss a beat in this demanding and ambitious piece; a committed and focused performer.
The introduction was brilliant, dropping us straight into this abstract and deliciously visceral language;
“Boiled eggs explode in microwaves. This is myth because you cannot ‘boil’ an egg in the microwave, my Pedant says, his voice sticky yolk. Actually, I can’t boil an egg at all, whines Self-Pity, turning every thought to a slippery white that will not set, even when fried.. ….. Oh, shut up, you darling fool! Drama Queen flounces in. You’ve a cherry cake to ice, lovers to resist and enough omelette eggs to break a thousand hearts! Stop it with that nonsense, Earth-Mother imparts. Go tend to your daughter, learn to be the perfect wife! All life is myth: play your part without complaining and we’d all have less strife, insists the Ego/Critic/Determined-To-Have-The-Last-“
The poetry is divine. Rich, complex, visual, flowing and tumbling out with power and aliveness, gathering images of microscopic and sometimes delightfully unexpected detail (The chimney coughs… ), sliding us into the uneasy and intense experience of the world seen through a depressive. While researching this show I came across a quote from Bovary mirroring aptly the longing felt throughout Sarah James’ narrative to express the deeper more perplexing aspects of human experience and, which is often achieved through superb writing.
“The truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”
― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
What would add to this poetic narrative would be more of a sense of who Emma was when not enveloped in depression – brief moments portraying a sense of her normality, her everydayness in her natural habitat. I’m not quite in sympathy with our protagonist; I feel disconnected from her as indeed she feels towards the world around her. Her abstract intense language creating occasional distance for the viewer reminds us that overly complex language can take us away from connecting with the heart of the play, as thinking overtakes feeling. The voice overs of the Doctor and the husband were vivid and effective, adding poignancy, emotion and breath. The poetic narrative in some places would have benefited from a breath or two more, giving a chance for some of the particularly juicy lines to sink in, allowing the audience time to connect with the imagery. Some further exploring around the physicality of the performance would add to the strong verbal prose.
To appreciate the language of this piece, the quality of the writing and Straker’s commitment to the performance the audience needs to concentrate fully, which in a digital age is a marvellous thing. As this work grows and develops it will I think start to shed some bulkiness and through a lightening of language and a filling out of plot will find its’ perfect compromise between academic intensity and light entertainment. I would recommend going to see this show; the subject is raw and intensely moving, the whole production has been produced with care and professionalism, and the poetic language is boldly breath-taking. A thought provoking approach to the dramatic monologue.