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Edinburgh Fringe 2017

The Shape of the Pain

China Plate, Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe

Genre: New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Summerhall


Low Down

“I don’t have to remember being in pain. I’m not sure that’s something we can do. And in my case, it’s irrelevant. You can’t remember something that’s still happening.’ One woman attempts to articulate her experience of physical pain. Pain with no apparent cause. Also, she’s met someone, and they want to make this work. A new show from a Fringe First award-winning team exploring life in extremity and the joy that can be found there. Commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre/The New Wolsey Theatre. Supported by artsdepot. Funded by The Wellcome Trust. (EdFringe website.)’


Rachel Bagshaw delivers an engaging performance in this one woman-show, which coalesces several theatrical elements skillfully, resulting in an informative and deeply intriguing production. The piece begins with an audio explanation by Rachel, in which she lays out the different elements of the show: among several others, that she will tell one woman’s story using only her own voice and form, and with the help of light and sound. Rachel says, ‘I talk with my hands and fingers as much as my voice’. From her expressive eyes to her considerate movements, she compels. Having Rachel alone voice all the parts in the production – both on audio and onstage, when she recounts her lover – cleverly emphasised the isolation of the pain. It is a very cerebral experience, but also an immersive one; and I left the theatre feeling like I had spent seventy minutes in someone else’s body.

The Shape of the Pain is like an extra dynamic lecture, an experiment in how we talk about pain. All the text is projected on the dark grey metal plates which make the set, and form a curved wall behind Rachel. A visionary idea for a production which is focused on the limits of language, particularly when it comes to expressing extreme physical states. Sentences would pile up and words would stretch, representing the feelings they strive to communicate. But the sheer mass of the text is a needless and distracting challenge at times, comparable to attending a poetry reading. The writing is often truly beautiful, but its frequent verbosity means that phrases deserving of more space around them are instead enveloped by an excess of words. It felt too like an essay to be a monologue, and could have used a healthy cut (the word ‘fuck’ was definitely said too much, and used in too many different contexts). The audience could have been allowed more room to make their own discoveries. Rachel tells us towards the beginning of The Shape of the Pain that talking about the pain makes it worse. But if this information were left unsaid, when she is later questioned by the nurse (conveyed mesmerically, as the nurse’s words were projected where we imagine her standing), who asks her to ‘describe the pain’, inferring this connection as the lights and sound intensify between articulation and physical duress would have made for more suspenseful watching.

The lighting is truly exceptional, inspirational; and The Shape of the Pain should be seen for this reason alone. From creating two flanking silhouettes of Rachel against the metal grating – additional selves, sharing in her pain – to gradually pixelating her, dissecting her, the lights had a mind of their own, and kept the show in a constant state of hypnotic undulation, exploration and discovery. They transported the auditorium to memories and places with synaesthetic innovation. Sound was often effective, but lacked real inventiveness. Warping drones, escalating in pitch and metallic harshness, had a physical impact, thus sharing an understanding of the experience of the pain between performer and audience. But more sonic events were needed, and fewer computerised effects, to make the sound as pioneering and surrounding as other technical elements. Perhaps sounds from the actual world, to communicate how even one’s environment, however mundane that may be, seems in revolt when the body is so encased in its own private hell. That said, moments of textual silence, when words surrender to blinding, dancing lights and piercing noise, came at very well-considered points, when the pain became too overwhelming for linguistic expression.

This is an impressively thoughtful production, conceptually and in its execution. I could hear people chattering and debating all around me when the lights went up. But it needed to scrutinise each individual element under a microscope again to achieve its ambitions totally. As it is, it is still a haunting and highly original piece, well worth attending and totally succumbing to.