Fringe Online 2021
Yet another play in Jermyn Street’s Footprints Festival. Directed by Khadifa Wong. Costume Designer Jessie McKenzie, Set Design by Louie Whitmore, Lighting by Johanna Town’s a play of light and shadows, mini-blackouts. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 10th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
Merryl Ansah’s Jamie wants swimming lessons. Jamie’s just turned thirty. Her brother Baz is ‘an Olympic-grade swimmer’ and has vanished. Maybe his bones aren’t as heavy as there’s such racist history attached to people of colour and swimming: that for instance their bones are too heavy and they always sink.
But Jamie’s for whatever reason at thirty, wanting to change whatever it is that makes swimming heavy. ‘Grief is weird and expensive.’ The swimming lessons aren’t too bad though, at first – where there’s a splash of fun every few minutes. Later, there’s the deep end, sharks or no.
Tautly directed by Jermyn Street Associate Khadifa Wong, Somebody Jones’ How I Learned to Swim is more layered in seventy minutes than racism meets the missing meets grief. Louie Whitmore’s set’s in two zones but look made for each other: a deckchair – and rectangular neon-bright strip denoting that magical space of water, a bit like a Miriam Buether strip round a prosc-arch. Costume designer Jessie McKenzie supplies a onesie swimsuit, towel and track suit Ansah slips between half a dozen times, like someone going through five stages of grief on dry land.
There’s Molly, Jamie’s warm instructor, ambitious for her, with a feel-the-fear etc approach but neither brash nor unempathic. Jones though eschews the obvious redemption-via-tutor, or at least Molly’s way; whose attempts to push Jamie further after many successes ends in a gulp of rupture. Can Jamie forgive Molly, whose accent is English, washed up on this West Coastline? Jamie has pertinent questions about women and sharks. Jones, like Wong a Jermyn Street Associate, revels in let’s say edgy humour.
There are though other mentors out from the shell you’ve crawled under, and cultural ones too. Indeed a crab shell turns emblematic. There’s a mother and father anxious now for their daughter, a nagging question from them Jamie fobs off then blames herself for. But where, if anywhere, does blame reside? Maybe it’s not only Molly needs forgiving, as a wise seer suggests for $52 – and he’s determined Jamie will get her money’s worth, recalling her three times.
Freighted with the way racism seeps into aspiration, even fundamental elements like the element of water, How I Learned to Swim asks questions of our limits, physical, psychological, cultural and moral. There’s a liminal sense of a horizon beyond which everything is accepted, nothing blamed. Jamie’s attempts to find that horizon, and her two final encounters, are liberating in very different ways. Deciding what next though, is a re-immersion of a different kind.
Funny about fear, liberating with grief, How I Learned to Swim is an increasingly compelling drama. It begins very physically – Ansah is particularly good at invoking sudden jumps into the pool, even that leap of faith, the sea wave. West Coast living too, with its beat of sun and languor, hints that redemption’s more straightforward than more agonised stories of moral loss. That changes in the second half, where bravura gives place to haunted agons with the self and others, where Ansah compels attention. It ends in a hush of absorption as you lean in for every word.