For over a decade, Taking Flight Theatre has established itself as a company ready to take risks. From annual outdoor Shakespeare tours to the evolution of integrated access, this bold approach to theatre-making has positioned the company as one of Wales’ finest. Interestingly, on paper, peeling seems like a safer direction. This new play is intimate and provocative, with a cast of four, little in the way of set and props, and is a neat companion piece to another of Kaite O’Reilly’s plays, Richard III Redux. Our three protagonists here are part of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, forced to stay on stage all night because of a lack of accessibility. They are frustrated and bitter, left literally on the sidelines while others take centre-stage. However, it soon becomes clear that their oppression isn’t just from having a disability, but for being women with disabilities.
Intersectionality has rarely been explored on Welsh stages, if at all, so O’Reilly’s matter-of-fact approach to the subject matter is certainly impactful. All three women are seen as lesser than their peers because of their impairments, and that feeds into their attitudes towards womanhood, motherhood and relationships. They are strong women being chipped away at, helpless in the face of societal limitations, and O’Reilly demonstrates that with some brutally raw dialogue sequences. These set-pieces are deliberately unsettling and well-written, but O’Reilly’s script isn’t as effective during the lulls. The chemistry isn’t quite there during the conversational scenes and, instead, these exchanges feel contrived and flat, the play plodding along until that next big sequence.
The integrated Audio Description also adds to that difficulty to engage. Dialogue is intermingled with AD from the three actors and though there’s something charming about the breaking of the fourth wall (with other, better examples of that happening in the play), it doesn’t quite work here. Instead, hearing the actors switch from naturalistic conversation to straight description jars and disrupts the rhythm of the piece. Integrated BSL from Erin Hutchings, playing the Stage Manager, works far better and she rightfully becomes a significant part of the production as it goes on.
While they may not display great chemistry together, the three actors are excellent individually. The focus of the narrative shifts throughout the piece and each performer rises to the occasion during their moment. They look resplendent in the first of Becky Davies and Angharad Gamble’s costumes, a deliberately brash ‘vulva’ dress; but as their strong exterior peels away to reveal painful interiors, their outfits also lose their lustre. They’re all shades of red, though, and that colour also seeps into Jane Lalljee’s lighting of the production. Coupled with Tic Ashfield’s compositions, it brings a somewhat ethereal quality to the piece. There’s a deliberate ambiguity to every design choice, and that’s a testament to director Elise Davison’s attention to detail. She handles the production with an assured, if not fully controlled, hand.
peeling is Taking Flight’s first full-length production for an adult audience (that too, in an indoor venue) and, though a solid piece of theatre, it’s the peripheral aspects of the production that will be most memorable. That the project was produced with an all-female crew, and debuted on International Women’s Day, is certainly something to be admired, as is tackling the under-represented issue of intersectionality. Despite all that, the biggest risk this time was seeing whether Taking Flight could adapt to the demands of a new audience and, with notable teething problems, they just about get the job done.
More details of peeling’s tour can be found here.