Edinburgh Fringe 2015
What do you do when you move your family from the burbs to the city to begin a new adventure and then get diagnosed with stage four-breast cancer? You go on a mission to put everything in place before possibly saying goodbye. Agonisingly brave, touchingly funny, beautifully poignant and brutally honest, Bug Bite is the true story of one woman’s mission to save her family and herself, the people she meets along the way, and the discovery that the first step on the road to healing is acceptance.
In an audio interview with Fringe Review’s Paul Levy, Lizabeth Sipes admits that creating this play was a raw experience.
“It was very therapeutic for me….I emotionally connected with things in the process of writing that I didn’t get to feel when I was, fighting…”
This one woman play narrates the performer’s personal experience of Stage 4 breast cancer – a highly aggressive form that had spread to her bones and liver and which would, as her Doctor tells her, would be treated ‘highly aggressively’.
This is dark material for a play but the pace and humour of the piece is well constructed to allow us to tread lightly through this critical moment in her life.
Lizabeth Sipes plays over 12 characters involved in her story ranging from her young teenage stroppy daughter, to a homeless man who comforts her to her achingly distant husband whom she longs to ‘lean in’, to an energy healer who declares he has drawn out the cancer and deposited it in a nearby plant. Later Sipes re-enacts moments with another energy healer whom this time actually seems to work some magic, but this play isn’t about the what and why of therapy – we watch her sitting through her first IV chemotherapy session and the nausea after effects but medical treatment isn’t the pivot of this existential adventure.
What really emerges is the sense that all was not well in Sipes’s before the cancer even landed. There was too much rushing and worrying…too much work driven anxiety and not enough slow time with her middle child, who reacts the strongest to her diagnosis swinging from sulky indifference to fear and trepidation. We see this relationship start to transform as Sipes identifies aspects of herself that may or may not have contributed to her cancer…she is always playing herself as unsure and shaky…with a polite forced smile and keen to please other she seems to shrink next to her boldly played characters who swirl around her loud and certain…even the homeless man seems more sure of himself that Sipes. She tentatively starts to approach her life with more consciousness…she turns off the phone…she ‘leans in’ herself to her daughter…she slows down and lets herself take it all in. I would have liked to have seen a more physical manifestation of this narrative, a slowing down of Sipes’ speech in the last part of the play and more of a physical expansion in presence to allow the audience to really feel the impact of this.
An exploration of pauses and uncomfortable silences throughout might have better mirrored the critical incident of diagnosis, adding an experiential quality to this meaty piece. At times the breathy pace didn’t always encourage a deeper breath. That said, this is a strong professional show, well written and staged. The technical contributions of the added projector screen are timely and considered, adding depth and focus. Sipes is a skilled performer jumping in and out of several characters fairly effortlessly and the narration holds well. I felt engaged with the story and never lost. What strikes me about this story is that death and loneliness is faced and leaned into with the bravery and wit of a modern woman. I was reminded of Dylan Thomas…”Do not go gentle into that good night….Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. What better way to rage than to travel across the world and lay yourself completely bare, at the Edinburgh Fringe? It’s so important that work like this is brought here, processing and exploring the human condition in all its bittersweet colours is at the heart of the Fringe.