Bill Gallagher, Bill Gallagher's "The ME", Dana Etgar, Darkle, Depression, Edinburgh Fringe, Jacquie Crago, Justina Kaminskaitė, Katherine Vince, Madame Bovary, Mental Illness, Pleasance Zoo, Poetry, Reaction Theatre Makers, Sarah James, Sarah Kenney, The Magnetic Diaries, The Sun Apparatus Theatre Company, Theatre Review, Tiffany Hosking, Vey Straker
Two shows at the Pleasance Zoo, with an hour between them. Both put the same person on stage: the over-advantaged, under-stimulated bourgeois woman, whose life is a pool of woe. Yes, she enjoys a wealth and security which are unknown to the majority of humans around the planet and throughout history, but no, she is not happy. “The Magnetic Diaries” submits her case tragically, whilst “The ME” throws her a party.
“The Magnetic Diaries” is written by the poet Sarah James and performed by Vey Straker. Emma Bailey is a wife and mother who is being treated therapeutically for depression. She journeys to London to receive a new course of treatment which involves magnetic waves being circulated around certain regions of her brain. This sounds New Age, but it is apparently clinically credible. Whilst in London, Em has a fling with a guy who she meets in a bar, and here is where Madame Bovary tiptoes into the story. The therapy seems to be working then, with Em’s neurology being successfully pepped up, or else she has just had a fling with a guy who she had met in a bar and the magnetic waves are getting all the credit for her buoyancy. Unfortunately, the story does not conclude in London and Em has soon dropped back off the wavelength.
This play’s structural design is its most original feature. Recordings of voicemail messages from Em’s nice-guy husband are interposed with poetical extracts from her diaries. The messages beseech and worry matter-of-factly about the big things, the failing marriage and the neglected bairn. They are all plot. The poems meander and frisk about the little things, painted toenails in a greasy bed and the texture of bathroom grout (yes really). They are all detail. So the Baileys are speaking different languages and any connection between them would be akin to a face-to-face meeting between the sun and the moon. Em’s poems are typically playful, as when, marvelling at a hen’s egg the size of a penny, she perceives that “no magic is better than this.” This whimsy is, however, all that she has and it is unlikely to save her soul.
“The Magnetic Dairies” is, presentationally, a curiosity. Straker has been given a large wooden frame to perform on and under and around; it looks like a climbing apparatus in a monkey enclosure. Did I mention that the venue is the Zoo? It is as if we have turned a corner in the quieter regions of a zoo and arrived in front of an exhibit which is labelled “bourgeois human (female).” Still, what exactly is Em a specimen of? The Victorian days are over – Madame Bovary is no longer the most relevant model for liberated women. Em is always passive, in waiting for the magnetic waves to simply wash her to shore, but she does not seem to know what to do when she arrives.
The whole of the Sun Apparatus Theatre Company’s “The ME” appears to have been extrapolated from a single, extraordinary item of furniture, an inversion table. People are strapped upside-down to these contraptions and this allegedly helps them to “decompress” their spines. After I was reconciled with the idea of magnetic waves in the last show, an inversion table is probably too much for one day. But I can imagine the playwright coming across an inversion table, say in a shop window, and wondering, what kind of person would own such a thing? How would they speak? What would they say? What sort of house would they live in and who would knock on the door? If you have answered all of these questions, then you have “The ME.”
Melody (Katherine Vince) is a wealthy barrister and a health diva who spends most of her life climbing in and out of her inversion table. One day, a parcel arrives but the courier, Kirsten (Justina Kaminskaitė), declares immediately that the delivery which Melody has ordered is useless. Kirsten has nonetheless something far more exciting in her satchel. Promptly donning a lab coat, she reveals that she was fired from her last job in a regenerative medicine facility for conducting unlicensed experiments on a bonobo. Luckily, she took the results of her work with her: an elixir which might, if it is safe, guarantee immortality. This drug had, she admits, also caused the monkey to sprout multiple genitals. Melody allows Kirsten to test it on her maid Lita (Dana Etgar).
“The ME” looks like a small student production but it is in fact scripted by Bill Gallagher, whose lurid comedy “Darkle” had won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award in 1989. Although big, topical themes such as stem cell research and the exploitation of migrants are arranged attractively around the stage, and adorned with inviting quotations from Rosa Luxemburg, Constantine P. Cavafy, and Che Guevara, the cast leave the dust sheets on and dance without obstruction around everything.
You can subscribe to this play’s incendiary rhetoric if you want to, but it won’t take you anywhere. The inversion table is actually the most realistic and sensible thing on stage. “The ME” is, like “Darkle,” a melancholy and at times sweetly nightmarish farce. The absurdism is lavish and it is gifted to an energetic and well matched troupe of performers. You are more likely to find Lita enrapt in Abba than rueing the unfairness of capitalism. Another, later servant (Sarah Kenney) incites physical force resistance against the household’s “dictatorship,” but she spins off harmlessly in her silliness.
It might sound as if I am dismissing this play as a show of style and I possibly am. Yet I was increasingly sensitive to its delicately varying moods, its gentle lapses into eeriness, and the unpredictability of the currents beneath it. “The ME” is not as spectacular as “Darkle” but it is just as fresh, funny, and atmospheric.