An invisible mouth takes Wilton’s Music Hall between its teeth. Its tongue licks at every millimetre of the playing space, while a disembodied voice describes the area in intricate detail. Ghostly lips stretch, alerting the audience to the arrival of a single actor, before spitting out the body of Hannah McPake. When she speaks, her words appear projected onto an arced grill behind. Panels slot together, characterised by the minute holes that allow light to pass through them. The setting hugs her tightly as her voice is made tangible – it is soft and sweet at the edges.
Inspired by the lived experience of its Director Rachel Bagshaw, The Shape of the Pain makes chronic illness palpable. Sharp, silvery sounds expose the mystery that is Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS): an uncommon disorder which manifests as extreme pain, typically developing after an illness or injury. In this case, it began with a minor fall at 19 – when our protagonist’s right knee had a chance meeting with the pavement. The production itself is informed by science, with Melanie Wilson’s unique soundscape and Joshua Pharo’s lighting design bringing fact and fiction together to create a powerful spectacle.
McPake’s character favours the F word, the expletive popping from her jaw as when prescription medication jumps from its foil. It seems to be the only phrase that keeps her grounded, not least when the pain manages to be both inside and outside of her body. As expected from an affliction such as this, romantic engagements can prove difficult, if nigh on impossible. When a peppery shade of purple dissolves into the crowded din of a nightclub, McPake’s large eyes betray a sense of anxiety. She hesitates, but the story spills from her: intercourse with a nameless gentleman, and an unexpected emotional intimacy with him. What follows is a hearty juxtaposition of pleasure and agony, an obstacle course that grows all the more difficult to navigate as the two grow increasingly familiar.
At times, subtitles provide the pattern for other characters such as her GP. When their script shudders and breaks up, the challenges in treating a force that cannot be seen becomes clear. Confusion grows into its own symphony, with voices thrown from right to left, the contrasting typefaces left to ferment. The screen gives way to static, dancing to the tune of white noise. Here, a white-hot burning and numb, blackened distress become one, choreographed against unstable adjectives breaking out across the backdrop. The action tends to transform further, with McPake encouraging her audience through an exercise in visualisation. These transitions are as fluid or stilted as her condition allows, all the while drawing the spectator further into the narrative.
Chris Thorpe’s writing is impossibly beautiful. Pain is personified through his prose, ultimately becoming indistinguishable from the man McPake loves. What was once a poetic preoccupation with his mundane habits is slowly willed into a caustic hatred. It is here that the silences between her sentences are joined by the noises of half-sleep. Music enough to tie endings and beginnings together, so that one can’t help but align themselves with the previously unimaginable experiences brought on by CRPS. The Shape of the Pain is sensational – in fact, it is the very essence of the word.
The Shape of the Pain played until 23 March. For more information, visit the Wilton’s Music Hall website.