I have a confession to make. I’m not a huge fan of physical theatre. I’m a word junkie. Language is what I love. So, I was interested to see how In Her Shadows, a piece of aerial and physical theatre that addresses one individual’s battle with depression and anxiety – conditions that often seem hard enough to articulate in words – would convey those struggles visually.
The piece begins with performer Rachael Macintyre shuffling on stage, shouldering a backpack which seems to contain the weight of the world, as we see projections (on a gorgeous scallop-shaped screen) of social situations that appear to overwhelm the protagonist. This is represented beautifully by the interplay of the two performers, as Debbie Robbins climbs on top of her co-artiste, conveying the crushing weight of a family meal at Christmas. In another scene, Macintyre’s chair is rocked from side to side by a gracefully squirming Robbins, showing how social anxiety leaves us unsteady, at sea, even in the simple act of enjoying a cup of coffee in a café. Robbins’ character serves as a personification of the mental turbulence that the protagonist shares her life with.
Frequently, Robbins seems to represent the mother figure that haunts this whole piece, shadowing Macintyre’s every move. At times she’s physically climbing on her shoulders – the ‘monkey on her back’ – while at others she’s curled in a spooning embrace as Macintyre lies in a foetal ball on the floor. There are also moments that see her climbing the sash or the rope, lording her control over the mind of the central character; she spins with the rope coiled around her middle as Ewan Macintyre’s portentous soundtrack peeks and crescendos, conveying an umbilical attachment that makes this relationship all the more confused and difficult to resolve.
But there is hope. At times the protagonist climbs higher, flying unencumbered by the daunting presence of the mother figure, the range of movement conveying those brighter, more hopeful days that her condition occasionally affords her.
And words do come, in the form of the astounding poem Today by Jenny Lindsay, which comes in a voiceover in the final sequence. A rhythmic flurry of verse which hums along with sibilant intensity and plosive curses, rattling through a scale of good days and bad, by rating them 10 down to 1. It’s hugely effective as a summation of what we have just seen, an encapsulation, even a validation. And yet, for the previous 40 minutes, these sentiments have been performed with nothing but movement, music and visuals, with equal power.
Today I learnt a new language, a language full of vigour and candour, which beautifully portrays the hugeness of depression, and tenderly soothes and nurtures at the same time. In Her Shadows is fantastic. Words fail me.
Written by Tom Grayson