The Shape of the Pain at Wilton’s Music Hall
The Shape of the Pain is the brainchild of director Rachel Bagshaw and writer Chris Thorpe. Based on Bagshaw’s own experience of living with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome – a condition where an individual experiences chronic pain in one of their limbs, usually after a minor injury – and framed around the narrative of a love story, the show is one woman’s attempt to articulate unspeakable pain.
In trying to transmit an understanding of her own felt experience to another human, the director leaves no means unexplored. Pain, contrary to other felt experiences, isn’t concrete: its physical qualities can’t be described in a way that’s universally agreed upon – it might feel like a burning knife in your guts, but it isn’t, really, even hot. So what happens when an experience is so impossible to convey, yet so central to and inseparable from one person’s identity? Bagshaw passes her voice on to someone else (in this case, Hannah McPake) to tell her story through another medium more suited to empathy creation: theatre.
Multimodality defines The Shape of the Pain, a play that focuses on accessibility. All productions are captioned and audio described. Mostly, captions are used effectively – such as when McPake portrays dialogue: interlocutors’ lines show on different sides of the meshed metal backdrop – but sometimes the captions detract from the attention McPake deserves. Minor variations between spoken and written words are ultimately trivial but distracting.
An original score by Melanie Wilson is intricately sewn into the play’s fabric; it hums and drones, pierces and comforts, always honouring the text in a compelling effort to explore pain through sound. Likewise, Joshua Pharo’s video and light design work synergistically with sound, text and McPake’s natural energy to form yet another level of metaphorical representation.
The central performance itself is raw and real. The actress’s eye contact with the audience reinforces a human presence. Her delivery aligns with visual and sound design, creating cohesive moments of empathic resonance. At times, her diction veers slightly from the Northern character she represents, betraying McPake’s Cardiff roots (with trilled “r”) – but this is nitpicking in the grand scheme of tonight’s performance.
The Shape of the Pain portrays physical pain using an array of metaphors, and the idea of optimising the show for accessibility could form an additional, meta-textual one: that in attempting to cover all bases in an exploration of pain, the play inevitably falls short of creating a complete understanding. It’s impossible. McPake’s character tells us as much in a beautifully unfalsified and honest statement: we can never truly know what it’s like to be someone else. But this play moves us, if not to a total understanding of pain, in the direction of one.
The Shape of the Pain is at Wilton’s Music Hall from 19th March until 23rd March 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Shape of the Pain here: