“Sit and bear witness”.
It’s difficult; of course it is. In Foreign Body, the product of some four years of development, Imogen Butler-Cole trains everything she has at the subject of sexual assault and the long process of recovery. A taut production, it’s an example of some of the best Vault Festival has on offer amongst its bewildering array of content and should indeed be witnessed as widely as possible.
Surrounded by seven mirrors, Butler-Cole swings around the space, often craning to look at herself in them. She keeps in contact with the wooden chair in the centre for most of the performance, whether hoisting it onto her shoulders, putting her limbs through it, leaning on it. The sound design (Tara Franks and Filipe Sousa) is impressive: discordant music with stretched-out chords, and voices. All the voices we hear are from survivors giving their genuine testimony, and Butler-Cole herself doesn’t speak before us live. One voice we hear is clearly that of a child. We hear details of assaults, of how these women reacted to themselves and to the perpetrators afterwards, of how they continue to relate to what happened. Butler-Cole moves, the picture of focus. It’s simple and holistic.
Occasionally, as the voices sound out, she touches one of the mirrors – sometimes as if gently prompting a person to speak, sometimes as if comforting. When she first parts from the chair, well into the performance, she backs away from it, and circles it slowly while we listen to the voice of someone who assaulted her, a friend. It’s lit as if he sits there, and we’re all fixed on him. None of us want to be listening to this, but we hear his version of the incident. In a piece so mindful of the way memories are affected by the trauma of these events, this adds yet another layer to things, to the self-doubt and conflict so many of the women already express.
That Butler-Cole choreographed this herself (perhaps with input from the director, Fran Moulds) is notable; her movement is always engrossing, altogether making for a sensitively-judged and effective piece. It’s political theatre at its finest: personal and responsive. The strength of everyone involved and those in the (packed) audience for whom this was something familiar is formidable. Followed by a panel on the psychology of recovery, we all deserve to see more work like Foreign Body.
Foreign Body played at the Vault Theatre until 11 March
Photo: Chantal Guevara