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Colin Hambrook reviews Kaite O'Reilly's 'In Water I'm Weightless' / 2 September 2012

five members of the cast of In Water I'm Weightless face the audience on stage against a purple-lit background

Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone, David Toole, Mat Fraser and Karina Jones star in Kaite O'Reilly's Unlimited commission 'In Water I'm Weightless'

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I was really looking forward to seeing 'In Water I'm Weightless' and certainly wasn't disappointed.

The writing and the staging were beautiful. Tom Wentworth summed up the punky gutsiness of the show in a review of the show at the Cardiff Millennium Centre published on DAO four weeks ago.

From the opening moments as the six glowing spheres which hang above the stage fade and the performers come into focus we are confronted by the fact that impairment is an inevitable part of life; that our bodies will change and aspects of our physical, sensory and mental experience of the world will inexorably be altered by virtue of the ageing process, if not by circumstance.

"This will happen to you! I'm sorry, but it will happen to you" is the opening refrain, repeated by the cast and amplified in text via the spheres. We are immediately thrown into theatrical territory akin to Antonin Artaud's 'Theatre of Cruelty' in which the motivation behind the work is to set up a provocation to the audiences' ideas and preconceptions about themselves and about life.

The five characters played by Mat Fraser, Karina Jones, Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone and David Toole delve into the lived experience of disability and impairment. What they offer is to my mind the most eloquent, poetic, sexy, and at times humorous evocation of the Affirmation Model of Disability I have heard. [Dr Colin Cameron's definition talks about "impairment as something to be expected and respected as physical, sensory, emotional and cognitive difference to be expected and respected on its own terms in a diverse society."]

Despite a struggle to hear due to a distorted sound balance on the night I saw the piece, several phrases from the monologues remained within my grasp. Karina Jones' character challenges the accepted passivity of sight talking about how active sight is in flattening the world: "… through my mercurial eye the earth trembles."

Nick Phillips' character challenges the idea that having an impairment makes you 'broken'. He gives a speech  about how external oppression can lead to an internalisation of the assumption that having an impairment has a direct correlation to the notion of there being something ‘wrong’ with you: “’Broken’ suggests you had all the pieces to begin with… I was unmade…” He is talking about the impact of others attitudes, about how “Disability swells up like an unmade bed" as an invalidating social role, imposed from without.

And there was a line, spoken ensemble, that registered dramatically with me: "This is how madness begins, with the all-encompassing clarity of the truth of all things". I remember from childhood being thrown into the cavernous heart of having that kind of deathly understanding and the powerful paralysis that comes with a sense of responsibility for everything that that kind of sensitivity brings with it. And the fear it invokes in others’ misinterpretation that leads to disability as the result of challenging a ‘normative’ world view.

David O'Toole's final speech is one of the most lyrical pieces of affirmation, saluting the "glorious freak of nature" and the "gem of the genome.' He throws out a challenge to societies fear of disability giving a short history of the myths and attitudes which disable us and thereby validate and uphold the 'norm' by virtue of our being in the world.

Ultimately the beauty of 'In Water I'm Weightless' is its challenge to notions of tragedy and bravery, whilst equally talking openly about the difficulties that impairment can pose. There was one poetic line that seemed to sum up the premise of the play: "a cell has no morality. It doesn't know if it's good or bad."

'In Water I’m Weightless' deserves a bigger run. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.