THE INCONVENIENCE OF WINGS. Written and directed by Lara Foot, with Jennifer Steyn, Andrew Buckland and Mncedisi Shabangu. Set design by Patrick Curtis. Lighting Mannie Manim. Sound by Philip Miller. Choreography by Grant van Ster. At The Baxter Theatre until August 13. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews
IN the 1980’s researchers in the North-Eastern area of Brazil were appalled by the response of mothers to the high rate of infant mortality.
Their apparent lack of emotion and inability to cry on the death of their babies left the researchers bewildered and judgemental of the perceived maternal neglect displayed by these women.
Further investigation however led to the discovery of a myth that babies who died were transformed into angels and the shedding of any tears would wet their wings, leaving them incapable of flight and unable to enter heaven. The act of withholding their tears therefore was not one of callous disregard but one of immense empathy and caring.
Foot in her new play, The Inconvenience of Wings, using the metaphor of angels similarly shines a light on the misconceptions surrounding mental illness and lifts a veil on the fragility and strength of those who suffer from bipolar disorder in particular.
For anyone who has suffered mental illness themselves or has lived with someone who is afflicted this piece will cut close to the bone as Foot and her phenomenal cast strip themselves literally and metaphorically to show the bare grief and confusion that are wrought by diseases of the mind.
Told in reverse chronology as used by Harold Pinter in his 1978 play, Betrayal,the narrative begins at the end echoing T.S. Eliot’s phrase “What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make and end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
There is an attempt to try and establish the source of her illness, a thankless task and one that leaves Sara as frustrated as her husband. As there is no end to the disease, similarly there seems to be no beginning either.
If one thought Steyn had reached a pinnacle of sorts in her portrayal of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House you would be mistaken. She has surpassed this in her heart-wrenching role as Sara, a woman afflicted with bi-polar disorder.
She is vulnerable and fragile and outrageously fierce as she performs that delicate dance between being winsome and totally manic, a lovable ingénue and a jaded cynic. A fellow sufferer of bi-polar disorder Sylvia Plath wrote “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between”
Steyn ricochets with abandon and in her frenzy we witness the agonizing torture of a mind that feels like “a volcano.” Her desperate pleas for additional valium are at once conniving and pathetic. In her moments of clarity she shares that canny insight so often a hallmark of those we cheerfully label as “mad” as she explains “there’s a gap. It feels as if I landed in my life with the first few chapters missing.”
It is those missing chapters that we become intrigued with as we keenly devour those we are presented with.
At various stages of the play she adds layers of clothing, mirroring the multiplicity of a disorder that has so many aspects and potential for misdiagnosis. She peels off the layers one by one until she is left bare and exposed, exquisite and wretched.
It is in the character of Paul played by Buckland that the genius of the script excels. He is besotted and tortured, as addicted to Sara’s suffering as she is to her endless supply of barbiturates in her biscuit tin.
He is her angel but as with the angels in Brazilian folklore his wings are ineffectual, wet with tears of frustration and despair, mired in the mud of mediocrity he is unable to fly to Sara’s rescue no matter how desperately he tries. In one scene Buckland flexes his burgeoning wings with a physicality that will remain forever etched in my mind. Virginia Woolf who was also afflicted by bipolar disorder, wrote in her suicide note.
“If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.” Sara is constantly torn between persecuting and praising the man who is dedicated to saving her and it is in his suffering that we come to understand her anguish.
The third character who would be intrusive in this very intimate drama if he did not provide such a steady touch point is Charles (Shabangu), a professor of psychiatry. An anomaly in the suburbs of Pretoria, a black academic residing on his own.
Paul’s initial meeting with the professor in 1966 is somewhat awkward but heralds the beginning of an unusual friendship.
One of those serendipitous meetings that entrenches him as a linchpin in the couple’s life. Paul’s naivete about Sara’s condition are evident as he shares her symptoms with the psychiatrist.
James provides some solid, if at times shaky ground, a harbour in the storm that rages in the couple’s lives. Foot’s interjection of references to SA’s political landscape would be clumsy in another writer’s hands.
The references are subtle enough to provide another aspect to the characters and to reflect on the prevailing psychosis of the state. To James, studying at a “white university” in Natal “everything was political” and he offers a glimpse into the struggles faced by black academics in SA during apartheid, calling to mind stalwarts like Saths Cooper who embodied academic rigour and political integrity. His political fervour is dampened and he is eventually exhausted by politics.
A brief interchange between him and Sara about a rebel cricket tour provides some insight. This is one of the many moments of audacity of Foot’s writing where she shines a light on the political concern and the simultaneous disconnect experienced by white suburban liberals.
The psychiatrist who battles with his own addictions expresses his despair with the medical profession to Paul, “I got tired of hope. I preferred books. Friendly and reliable and honest. Books are incredible. They give you the world and expect nothing in return.”
He handles Sara’s “energetic spells” with compassion and avoids becoming a “point of shame” in her post manic reflections. Sara’s children are never seen on stage but dwell just beyond the fourth wall, almost forgotten by their mother as their father tries in vain to protect them from the fall out of her manic episodes.
Like the mothers in Brazil she ultimately makes choices which she believes are in her children’s best interests.
Curtis has designed a set of recessed frames which enclose the characters at various stages. At times Sara herself appears boxed in, confined in the grey strictures of the walls and her husband’s expectations.
The minimalistic soundscape contains echoes of hospital corridors and distressing interior landscapes - eerie and evocative.
Foot was the featured artist at this year’s National Arts Festival at which the play premièred.
It featured on the programme together with Karoo Moose and Tshepang and The Inconvenience of Wings will take pride of place alongside these iconic works in the definitive local theatrical canon which explore our socio-political complexities.
Sara and Paul’s relationship begins with a reading from the short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
A tale about a slightly wretched angel whose reputation is ruined by performing “consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun.”
Foot leaves us with the realization that while angels with wet wings may be inconvenient, unable to fly and incapable of rescue, their embrace, however fleeting is what makes our moments on earth worthwhile, an aggregation of miraculous consolations.