GORDON PARSONS recommends Arthur Kopit’s play on a woman inescapably imprisoned in the mental torture induced by a stroke
Wings The Young Vic, London SE1 5/5
BY FAR the most physically demanding performance on the British stage today must be Juliet Stevenson’s portrayal of a stroke victim struggling to understand and escape from the cage of her imprisoned mind.
For most of the hour and a quarter of Arthur Kopit’s impressionist play she is whirled aloft on a harness where, tumbling headlong and often upside down, she conducts her desperate battle with language as she engages with a barrage of meaningless questions from doctors, nurses and social workers but mainly from herself.
Kopit’s brilliant treatment of this terrifying divorce from reality was inspired by his attempts to understand the experiences of his speechless, stroke-stricken father.
He based what was initially a radio play on a woman he met in his father’s rehabilitation unit who, in the 1920s, had been a popular wing-walker on a flying plane — hence the title of the play.
Stevenson’s Mrs Stilson journeys from the initial “catastrophe,” through her devastating “awakening” to the bewildering effects of her cerebral infarction and a final attempt to come to terms with a lost life, demanding all the courage of her early death-defying feats in the clouds.
On, or more often above, a sliding traverse stage she frustratingly battles with the monster in control of her body and mind in an incomprehensible limbo world.
Her efforts to negotiate with the insubstantial figures that surround her are expressed in a mixture of fragmented coherence emerging through a maze of babble.
A central naturalistic group therapy session lightens the intensity of her personal angst and even evokes a sad humour in depicting the tragic and varied impacts of strokes.
Natali Abrahami’s production is a superb expression of theatrical team work, in which lighting and sound provide a continuous commentary to a consummate performance by Stevenson. It turns what might be viewed as a neurological case study into a compelling and frightening drama.