Monday, 17 September 2012

Ménage a Trois - review

Written by: Seona McClintock (@seonamcclintock)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London

The Unlimited festival, a season of arts events that ran alongside the Paralympic Games, had similar aims: to celebrate diversity, promote awareness and discussion and provide a platform for inspiring artists. So in the true spirit of inclusion, all the wheelchair users arriving at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were segregated into a dingy bar by the back door, so small that gridlock resulted when everyone tried to get to their seats. As an equally neglected ‘press’ person I found myself in the same place, an afterthought alongside the very people the performance is dedicated to and that it celebrates.

But when we do eventually get to our seats and are allowed to imagine we have left London’s Southbank the production lives up to every one of those aims. A perfect marriage of design and movement results from this collaboration between choreographer and video-designer Gail Sneddon and performer Claire Cunningham, along with National Theatre of Scotland, which opened at Glasgow’s Tramway to coincide with the Paralympic Flame arriving in the city. Cunningham explores through dance and physical theatre the relationship she has with her crutches – the ménage a trois of the title – and whether her attachment to these particular partners makes her ‘undateable’.

Even with her crutches by her side Cunningham is an extraordinarily graceful and powerful performer. She found ways of incorporating them into her movement so that at times they seemed just like additional limbs, as nimbly controlled as her own. At other times their very lack of life and movement became the focal point, as when she built a man from crutches who could support her but not hold her, an idea that became central. The performance moved between the main images with a little bit of difficulty. The slower, more measured interactions between Cunningham and fellow dancer Christopher Owen, which punctuated the hour-long piece dropped the pace and went on a bit too long. Although interesting they were not nearly as compelling as the strong and beautiful dance segments which showcased the stunning skills of both performers and the intelligent choreography.

However, there is another important layer to this production which gives it the hallmark of daring, creative, cutting-edge National Theatre of Scotland project. Sneddon has designed a video which is projected on a thin veil of gauze both at the front and back of the stage. At times it provides a frame, with little visuals to complement the live action; at others it is an integral part, as when it is a video game in which Cunningham takes delight in shooting up all the loved-up couples. It is also the means by which words are introduced, and incorporated unusually well for a largely physical piece. Not too frequent to disturb the flow but a genuine, heart-felt monologue which offers clarity to Cunningham’s feelings and gives the performance one of its greatest strengths: it is personal. Not a single sweeping generalisation muddies the waters here; this is Cunningham’s own story and it is touching that she lets us share it with her.

This production has finished its run. 

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