Review: Ménage à Trois

We are invited into a visual spectacle as the first thing our eyes meet is a ceiling to floor screen, enveloping the stage. The projected images recall the titles of The Matrix – letters, lines, bouncing atoms and scraps of wallpaper as if we are seeing what is happening behind the closed doors of the protagonist’s mind. This is our introduction to the National Theatre of Scotland production of Ménage à Trois.

The performance has not even started and the visuals capture the imagination already. The audience chatter amongst themselves. I get the feeling the preset doesn’t quite match their expectations of the piece and this excites them.

As the house lights go down, unsettling technical music and dancing lights punctuate fleeting views of Ménage à Trois‘ protagonist, disabled artist Claire Cunningham, in a disconcerting position. The imagery moves from this feel of a human machine to a whimsical, child-like game portraying her disdain for couples and the introduction of a voiceover.

All these things combined may seem a little out of sync on paper, but put together on stage you start to witness the inner thoughts of the woman Cunningham portrays. A woman who has rarely been without a pair of crutches and yet has such control over them they punctuate and assist her swift and elegant movements. To say Cunningham is awe-inspiring is an understatement.

A quiet empathy fills the auditorium as Cunningham talks of her ideal man in voiceover. This is something every woman can relate to – clichés such as writing love letters or an imagined perfect New Year’s Eve are intertwined with Cunningham’s specific rules, (“You will not have a beard”), but one stands out in particular: “ You will not be disabled”. We may feel empathy but we shall never fully understand on her level.

Cunningham’s crutches are transformed into the man she has been conjuring up in her imagination, her perfect man played by Christopher Owen. The romance between them is beautiful. Their movements complement each other with sweeping gestures and graceful lifts. As they move, they give the impression that no individual is more reliant on the other but they are equal partners.

The movement sections take a storytelling role until Cunningham appears with armor made of crutches and a more melodramatic tone is set. This sequence is an intelligent portrayal of Cunningham’s feeling of being locked-in by her reliance on crutches. The high emotion of this scene is accentuated by Cunningham’s impressive operatic voice, but following silences lag, the point having been made.

Cunningham and Owens’ dance continues to show the ebbs and flows of a relationship. You can’t help but wish for a happy ending for the pair – for just this one time for Cunningham’s Prince Charming not to be a dream, for the hero not to fade. But as the dance continues, it’s clear the dream-man is not the hero. Cunningham, our beautiful protagonist and co-director of the production, is the true hero. Not only does she inspire but, by the climax of Ménage à Trois, leaves you with a sense of hope.

Ménage à Trois plays at Tramway, Glasgow 24 and 25 August, touring to Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (8 September) Eden Court, Inverness (11 September) and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (19 September). For more information and tickets please see the National Theatre of Scotland website.

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