This is a story about pain, about how it feels to be in pain. But we all know how it feels… Yet this is not localised pain, this is not pain with a cause. “I always hurt”. states Hannah McPake. “But I am still here. It is not all I am.” Even in her eyes you can see that she is tense, trying to hold back that which is constantly present. McPake tries to convey The Shape of the Pain in a powerful performance of description, emotion and concept. This show works because every element of the production is perfectly in sync.
Pain masks things, true feelings or desires. It shrouds us in a veil and distracts our subconscious mind from processing anything else. Some days, it’s so bad that McPake can barely keep a grip on it. This shows in a performance that hums with bottled anguish. In an attempt to explain the pain, Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe conjure up erudite descriptions, images and sounds that envelope us and hit us from every point and with every sense. It’s overwhelming and overpowering, exactly how McPake must feel.
Joshua Pharo’s lighting and video design colours the mood with expert subtlety. Sometimes the pain is blue, dull and numbing. Other times it’s an angry red, pulsating at you in time with Melanie Wilson’s soundscape. Wilson’s composition is the backbone of this piece – at times so minute that it barely pervades your consciousness, yet at other times harsh and shrieking and deafening to hear. All of this goes some way to realising the concept of the pain that McPake feels – even as we bathe in it, we are acutely aware that this may only scratch the surface, and that feeling is even more impactful given McPake’s plain, no complaints delivery.
Thorpe’s script has a beautiful middle passage in it that simplifies a description of the neurology involved in nerve impulses without feeling patronising in any way. Pain is another signal, a message that must be passed down a chain. At times, it comes to gates and must lower these in order to pass through. But if the gate is constantly open, then it becomes impossible to understand the content of the message as it passes through – it is merely the act of messages constantly flowing in and out that becomes the defining factor. An analogy that conceptually summarises the production to a tee – understandable; simple; accurate.
McPake remembers a time before pain, but she does not remember what that feels like. She tenses again, a coiled spring that can never seem to relax. It’s despairing and magnetic to watch. As The Shape of the Pain climaxes, McPake starts to lash out at the sheer volume of idiotic suggestions put forth to help her take control. “Have you tried…?” – of course she fucking has. Do you think it worked? No. Then fuck off.
In the end, The Shape of the Pain is the shape of us. Because the pain is us, it’s inherent within. Thorpe and Bagshaw breathe life into a beautifully visual and audio package to attempt to realise what McPake goes through in every second of her day. It’s a manifestation of futility, a visual representation of an unrelenting barrier that disables her from living. But it’s also a part of her – not the defining feature. It’s there to be dealt with, something we discover through such a poignant and impactful production.
The Shape of the Pain plays Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 until 26 August 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.