It is lucky in a way that In Water I’m Weightless is an arrangement of monologues and dance routines. The night before the first preview, one of the principal cast members, Mandy Colleran, suffered an injury which may see her miss all the performances until the show is taken from the Wales Millennium Centre to London’s Southbank Centre. It was announced at the start that there had been edits to scenes, lines and routines, but the performance, as far as could be told from the audience’s perspective, was not affected in the slightest. It is a credit to all involved that everything proceeded so smoothly as to not affect the production.
A fragmentary exploration of the human body, In Water I’m Weightless is National Theatre Wales’s new collaboration with Disability Arts Cymru, combining elements of dance, poetry, video work and voiceovers. The actors enter the performance space almost as if going down a catwalk, dressed in over-the-top costumes – think corsets, shoulder pads, Harry Hill collars, shiny grey suitjackets, and hoop-skirts, with what could safely be described as a protestational nonconformist state of mind – think top of the charts in the 1977 Silver Jubilee. By the end of the performance, we see them stripped down to their underwear (with Shirley Bassey’s Big Spender playing) before putting on more casual clothes, such as joggers and sweat pants. Combined with designer Paul Clay’s ten giant blue spheres hanging above the floor below (making full use of the Weston Studio’s great height) this highly stimulating and engaging production would leave any aesthete thoroughly satisfied.
But having stated that, Kate O’Reilly’s poetic script would work well on a stage without the surrounding multimedia. Stripped of everything else, this is about the actors and how they communicate how they feel to others around them. Some ask questions. The visually impaired Karina Jones asks us, ‘How would you describe seeing?’ in one of her monologues. And the subtext to a visually impaired person starting off a monologue by saying ‘I have amazing vision’ should not need to be explained too enthusiastically.
One of the interesting things about this is the attitudes to how the cast see themselves. There is something of a quiet rage to Nick Phillips’s most significant monologue. In it, his character describes being given a donation in his beer can outside a pub as someone automatically gives him pity for being a wheelchair user. The bewilderment in the character couldn’t be any different from Phillips’ own attitude when it comes to it either. Regardless of his experiences (he also describes the losing of body ownership to professionals and carers) Phillips himself has a robust attitude to being in a wheelchair: in his interview in the programme, he describes his experience of working on the production by saying ‘the exciting thing about doing this is looking at myself as a disabled person.’
In a not too dissimilar vein, Sophie Stone’s disability does not leave much in the way of visual clues. Her monologue, ‘Things I have lip-read,’ explores various statements made by different characters. We are given an expressive interpretation in voice over form and movement, of what it is like for various deaf people with the skill of lip reading to understand others.
While there may be something ‘hidden’ about Phillips and Stones’s experiences, Mat Fraser brings his out into the open. Playing a young adolescent, he describes being bullied for having a physical deformity. Ending with a choreographic piece to the tune of the Sex Pistols’ Bodies, his dance is a repetition of rhythmic movements which get faster and more physical as the tempo of the music increases. Sometimes bordering on the bizarre, this is perhaps the point – why bully someone for being different? Why not celebrate instead? It is parts of the production such as these that act as a reminder that being able-bodied is enough of a reward in itself. If that sounds overly melodramatic or sentimental, please forgive me.
The only thing is that with no narrative it is left to the ushers, or audience members with more of an eye for the normalities of theatre than I have, to start the applause to signal the end of the show. But the point is that it leaves you wanting more, and the only disappointment is not at the abrupt ending after David Toole’s tense ‘I salute you’ speech, but rather the fact that there is not more to come after it.