In a festival preview, Talking Heads reporter Louise Farquhar writes about Viola, a solo-aerial theatre performance that reimagines Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Viola will open at Aerial Edge in Glasgow on Friday 24th May.

Viola, a solo-aerial theatre performance reimagining Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, will premiere at SMHAF 2019 on the 24th May before embarking on a national tour. This innovative production is written and directed by Scottish soprano, Charlotte McKechnie, with choreography by aerialist, Adam Wright. Using aerial movement, improvised live music and projected text, the stripped-down story of this compelling heroine addresses issues of gender, identity and loss.

Just as Shakespeare broke the rules of traditional theatre, this new adaptation has a darker narrative, shunning the comedic tone of the original play. Finding herself shipwrecked, with the apparent death of her twin brother, this production is centered solely on Viola and how she adapts to the isolation and danger now upon her. Impersonating a man, for self-protection and to infiltrate society, she transcends from her own noble status to become a servant. Complicated relationships ensue until she is ultimately unmasked as herself, a woman.

In keeping with Shakespearean protocols, a male performer plays the female character of Viola. Adam is immensely talented in this role and brings great empathy to his performance. His ability to reflect the nuances of gender is deeply moving. As Charlotte explains, “I was fascinated by how we could use movement to really break apart our pre-conceptions of gender.” Trauma is also at the heart of this modern storyline. Viola has faced death, lost a loved one, been separated from her home and forced to relinquish her identity. By using only one character throughout the performance, everything is seen from only their perspective. There are no other characters or sub-plots to distract the audience. The attention is solely on Viola, “as the unfiltered, raw emotional processing of a person at their most vulnerable.”

Using such a unique art form, where the emotional ballast of live classical music balances the grace and artistry of aerial movement, a powerful connection is forged with the audience, asking important questions about how we react to mental health challenges. Charlotte is hopeful that Viola will prompt important conversations around these issues. In particular, the narrative climaxes in the scene, ‘Poor Monster’. This 8-minute intense aerial routine is a “mental fracturing” for Viola, reflective of a panic attack, “when someone is fuelled by a deep sense of anxiety and fear of not having a place in the world, of not being accepted.”

During an aerial performance such as Viola, with the performer’s body suspended in the air in a series of gravity-defying poses, the audience is given an alternative viewpoint. This different orientation of performance space, which upends conventional theatre, corresponds with the disruptive effects of mental health imbalance. Analogous to life, each performance of Viola is expected to be slightly different depending on Adams’ touch, together with the spontaneous music. Such an ever-changing landscape is truly representative of life, replicating the unpredictability of our experiences and responses. “An artist’s job is never about them. It’s to hold up a mirror to the audience to see themselves and their environment in a different light,” as Charlotte explains. This is particularly pertinent for Viola, where the artists lay emotionally bare before the audience, giving every last part of their soul to the performance. Compelling observers to share in this exposure, the piece aims to engender awareness not only in their own self, but also in the lives of others they meet. 

The artistic realm is a vital medium to raise consciousness of societal issues and challenge pre-conceptions. Performances like Viola, crucially set in an aerial environment, literally cut the ground from under our feet, bringing the disorientation of life sharply into focus. We must thank these artists for their generosity, as they give so much of themselves to us, in order than we can all become better people.

Viola opens at Aerial Edge, Kelvin Hall on 24th May, before touring the UK. A fundraising dinner on 22nd May includes live performances and aims to raise money for important school workshops. Click here to find out more.

Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.



Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books.