Director Rachel Bagshaw suffers from complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Her pain is relentless and arrives with no logical explanation – a light brush against one limb can inflict agonising, functionless pain upon another. She articulates this to the audience both with and without a frame of reference disarmingly well, giving her pain colour, depth and temperature as she details the effect it has had on her day to day existence and thought processes. Along with this, she offers a love story made profound, tangible and moving by its honesty and imperfection.
Hannah McPake acts on Rachel’s behalf, and the depth of emotion she conveys – particularly with her eyes – is deeply affecting. She shrinks into herself, overwhelmed, claustrophobic and self-conscious, before exploding with rage at the unwillingness of her doctor to look at her as a human being, rather than a patient to be placated with an unjust and temporary fix.
The masterful combination of sound design, lighting and projections coinciding with McPake’s performance offers an overwhelming glimpse into a life unwillingly shared with pain. For those with a history of illness, the staggeringly realistic portrayal of sensory overload is jarring and close to the bone. Yet it is also oddly comforting in that it does what words alone cannot: explain pain to someone who has not endured it, at least not to a large extent over a drawn out period of time. Pain can open chasms between friends and relatives. It can lead to mental illness and a change in personality. It can render day-to-day activities (sex, holding a cup of coffee, turning a key) unbearable.
This play can stir up difficult memories or make sense of them, and that’s why I recommend it as compelling and authentic theatre, a vital exercise in empathy. Moments of beauty, belly laughs and Rachel’s will to retain her identity and do more than simply persevere make this experience inspiring and deeply human.
Words: Fraser MacIntyre
The Shape of the Pain, Summerhall, Aug 15-26 (not 21), 7.30pm