It is not usually the done thing for a theatre critic to compare a play to a film. This holds true even when a play is adapted from a movie. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way when Rufus Norris directed a stage version of the unforgettable Danish film Festen about a dark family reunion.
What, I wondered out loud to anyone who would listen, was the point? How could a stage production enhance a story that had already been told so utterly compellingly? Then it opened at the Almeida and was one if the best things I’d ever seen. So to compare Natalie Abrahami’s inventively staged production of Arthur Kopit’s 1977 play about the effects of a stroke to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film that doesn’t even share the same author, feels deeply dodgy. But here goes.
Kopit was moved to write what was originally a radio play after his father suffered a stroke. The main protagonist here, however, is stroke victim Emily Stilson a former, of all things, wing walker who wowed audiences on the ground as she strolled among the struts of a bi-plane’s wings over their heads. Kopit met such a woman in his father’s therapy room, and to evoke the memory of flight Juliet Stevenson gamely performs the entire 80 minutes of this play suspended from a trapeze that swoops over the Young Vic’s stage like a moth. A Tiger Moth.
It is not just the memory of flight that is evoked by these aerial acrobatics but the condition of the mind losing anchor with its body. The stroke has denuded Stilson of speech. And just as language has left her, so has reason. The people we see as the doctors and clinicians who are treating her, she sees as enemies who have “captured” her.
Stevenson is on characteristically excellent form as the inwardly lucid, outwardly deadened Stilson. The frustration of thinking in a language that cannot be expressed is superbly evoked as she twirls and reels through darkness punctuated by sudden bursts of blinding light. These, we infer, are moments when the outside world breaks into Stilson’s interior like water gushing into an airlock.
But if the main objective of Abrahami’s production is to portray a lucid mind locked into an outwardly deadened body, it is one mostly achieved by an impressive panoply of stagecraft techniques. Ronald Harwood’s film did it with one brilliant idea: to view the world entirely through the eyes of a locked-in mind. I’m not saying there isn’t much to enjoy in this stage attempt to evoke that terrifying condition. But comparing all that effort to the one brilliant leap of Harwood’s imagination is irresistible.