After an acclaimed run in Cardiff, National Theatre Wales and a cast of deaf and disabled performers brings the award-winning Kaite O’Reilly’s 'In Water I’m Weightless' to London as part of the Unlimited festival at the Southbank Centre. But how did such an imaginative, poignant and funny work come together? Paul F Cockburn, dropped in during the final week of rehearsals last July.
The morning DAO drops in on rehearsals, the cast have been working on In Water I’m Weightless for four solid weeks. With opening night now only a few days away, the momentum is palpable as the show’s ensemble cast — Mandy Colleran (who has to drop out after injury), Mat Fraser, Karina Jones, Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone and David Toole — physically flex and warm their bodies to the soundtrack of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
The morning, according to NTW Media Officer Catrin Rogers, will be spent primarily doing 'tech'. This is the first time the cast have been given their costumes, so the focus will be on going through the 'tops and tails' of scenes, focusing not on performance but the practical issues of stage positions and costume changes.
Director John E McGrath underlines how the cast should raise any issues they have from this process, not least visually impaired Karina Jones, who at one point has to dance in a big dress while wearing high heals. She’s up for it, but there are concerns: “You have a go at everything, because you're fearless,” John tells her, though he later wonders if the question of her shoes will “haunt the whole production”.
The afternoon is dominated by the first proper run-through of the piece that brings together not just the cast but also the technical team with the music, soundscape and visual projections which are an integral part of the show. “Focus on meaning, on the work that's been done on a scene,” John tells the cast.
“There are no happy endings. There are just run-throughs,” responds popular cast-member Nick Phillips, humorously paraphrasing what all too quickly becomes as an important theme of the work, repeated through the production.
Nick is the ‘original find’ of this production. Although professionally trained as a dancer, he had given up on performance after a car accident. It was involvement in an earlier NTW production that helped change his mind.
“I kind of just came to the conclusion that, actually, it was no different to what I used to do; it just happens that I have my wheelchair now,” he explains. “I’m still a bit wary of this not being my usual projected image on stage. My safety net is the others around me. I think I would have a different feeling about it if I was on my own — that first step onto the stage would be a lot scarier if I didn’t have these guys around me.”
‘OK, how are we going to do this bit?’
John E McGrath, the first Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales, has known writer Kaite O’Reilly for many years. “I did a big project with her when I was running Contact Theatre in Manchester,” he explains. “Coming to NTW, I commissioned Kaite to do a new translation of The Persians, as part of our opening season; during that time she let me know she was working on this project, then called The D-Monologues. She started showing me the material as it developed. At a certain point she was very keen to see how it might actually turn into a theatre piece, and that was the point which we started talking about whether we could do it at National Theatre Wales.”
Having worked in both the UK and US, John is the first to recognise how this production has stretched him as a director. “It’s certainly been an experience to work with performers who are so different to each other,” he admits. “People who have different methods of communication, different kinds of mobility; people who are from different performance traditions — from Mat, who is very much from the live arts and burlesque world, to someone like Sophie, who’s a RADA-trained actor, or David, who is from a dance background.
“With each element of the show, we’ve had to find a different way of doing it,” he adds. “So sometimes you’re working one-to-one on a solo piece, sometimes with the ensemble, sometimes improvisationally, sometimes choreographically. I’ve never been able to settle into one way of working. It’s always been: “OK, how are we going to do this bit?” After about the second week, I sort of felt it had settled into me, but… I like to improve a lot in rehearsals, but I’ve had to extemporize even more!”
‘An embarrassment of riches'
Writer Kaite O’Reilly is in a good place when DAO speaks with her. “It’s an embarrassment of riches,” she says. “It’s an amazing cast, full stop, but I think Nick Phillips is fantastic. He’s coming very new to performance in his new disabled persona, because his is an acquired impairment. Basically, after his accident, he thought that was the end of him as a performer, because it seemed strange to him to be doing stuff in that new body, that new reality.
Yet Kaite is adamant that she is not simply putting disabled people’s lives on stage:
“Someone usually goes: because you happen to be in a body that’s different from the so-called norm — whatever that is — this must be your story, and it only happens to you. In ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ we sometimes echo things; we have the same stories repeated by different actors. This is about human experience; it’s not just about disability, or specific to one individual with one impairment or condition.”
After the afternoon’s run-through, Kaite’s holding back the tears. “Back in 2008, when I was awarded the Creative Wales Major Award from the Arts Council of Wales, I wanted to make a body of work specifically for deaf and disabled actors that would be shown on a mainstream platform,” she told us. “I’m using that phrase deliberately, because it’s all about the body, the a-typical body, and how that is read — the conceptions, preconceptions, prejudices that are hung on it. Both in the US and UK I’ve seen shows where, for example, it’s been about a deaf character, but I feel things have been watered down in the production process. With this piece, I don’t think any of the politics, the humour, the irreverence, the anger — the ‘let’s just sit back and take the piss out of this’ attitude — has gone.”
'In Water I'm Weightless' is showing in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre, London, on 31 August and 1 September.