Clinical but fascinating show about a woman living in unending pain
This dazzlingly technically accomplished show is an attempt to articulate the almost unfathomable condition suffered by its director, Rachel Bagshaw. She is afflicted with complex regional pain syndrome, which means she suffers from a constant,, illogical pain that moves about her body and can be triggered by almost anything – a touch on the right hand can mean sudden agony on the left.
‘The Shape of the Pain’ is written by Chris Thorpe and performed by Hannah McPake, with sound design by Melanie Wilson and light and projections by Joshua Pharo. It concerns two relationships Bagshaw had: that with her constant companion, the pain, and a more passing dalliance with a man. It’s about his attempt to understand the pain and fit around it: the name of the show comes from her attempt to explain to him that the the pain formed a sort of shaped, shifting field around her, that she can’t bear other people stepping it.
McPake’s gives a charismatic, unselfpitying performance – she spends much of the show smiling at us, with almost nothing in the way of grimaces or ‘pain acting’. Instead it’s Thorpe’s measured words and Wilson and Pharo’s technical skills that are tasked with inviting us into Bagshaw’s experience. The entire text is projected on the black backdrop, but the lines shudder and split and move and blur in line with the rhythm of Bagshaw’s pain, just as Wilson’s score rises from delicate background roaring to a dark, angry pulse.
It didn’t quite click for me. Part of it, I think, is the fact that I actually found the lights and sound rather pleasant – impressive as they are, they didn’t seem to have the harsh viscerality that I assume was being aimed for. And perhaps this is a horrendous thing to say, but I found it difficult to feel much empathy with Bagshaw and her obsession with her pain. In Thorpe’s text and McPake’s portrayal she seems like a smart, strong person with little desire for our sympathy, honest about the way the closeness between her and the pain distant.
It’s not a show about somebody suffering, but about somebody describing their suffering, and ultimately it feels clinical to the point of detachment.