tue 25/06/2024

In Water I'm Weightless, National Theatre Wales | reviews, news & interviews

In Water I'm Weightless, National Theatre Wales

In Water I'm Weightless, National Theatre Wales

Five disabled actors give an impressionistic glimpse of themselves

Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone, David Toole, Mat Fraser and Karina JonesFarrows Creative/National Theatre Wales

Adrian Burley MP would probably call In Water I’m Weightless “leftie multicultural crap”. I’d like to bestow similar praise. In common with Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, director John McGrath’s exploration of issues facing disabled people is a bit of a mess, a bit of a tick-box exercise and thoroughly enjoyable.

The play is a rallying cry for the civil rights of the disabled, and wears its politics somewhat heavily. But despite some meanderings in the middle, by the time we reach writer Kaite O’Reilly’s epic final monologue, a paean to the “gen of the genome”, “the glorious freak[s] of nature” who “broaden the scope of homosapien possibilities”, worthy almost of Shakespeare in its rhythm and intensity, and wonderfully delivered by David Toole (pictured below), there is a feeling that we have been confronted.

But with what? For the most part, the play is a loosely connected series of impressions: sign language, fragments of text, anecdotes, powerful music in a bewildering array of styles. There is little to connect these disparate elements but the fact that all of the five members of the cast have a disability. They are partially-sighted, deaf, paralysed or somehow physically deformed. Not too long ago, the only type of theatre open to these performers would have been in a freak show. In Water I’m Weightless is not without humour, and there is a moment of comedy when two of the actors discuss their recent roles: “always the monster”, “misunderstood evil genius” or, “worst of all, plot device”.

There is no such danger here, as the five actors are offered a rare opportunity to give us a glimpse of themselves, or at least a version thereof. Against Paul Clay’s simple but effective backdrop of projection screen and giant globules, which act variously as thought bubbles, water droplets and bodily cells, the cast each give a fantastic account of themselves. “Don’t patronise me,” says Karina Jones’ character at one point, and among all the familiar and less familiar things we hear that disabled people have to put up with on a daily basis – there is also a section titled “Things I Have Lipread” – this would seem to be one which grates the most.

Jones (pictured left) also has the pleasure of delivering some of O’Reilly’s best passages, a layered metaphor about “your very being a warzone carried out at molecular level” culminating in the horrific image of “that fleshy Dresden”, which nevertheless the character has learnt to love. Ultimately, In Water I’m Weightless is a celebration of disabled human beings – their bodies, their minds and their souls. And although it oscillates rather wildly between wigging out to the Sex Pistols and Shirley Bassey and reflections on perceiving other human beings in terms boiling down to use of taxpayers’ money like the theatrical equivalent of a loud/quiet/loud Nirvana song, it succeeds far more often than it fails.

It is thought-provoking rather than attitude-changing, but that fault lies with us, not with the play. And of course, despite some kind of attempts, it gets nowhere near allowing the able-bodied to understand what it might be like inside the body of “the other”. But that’s perhaps the point: underlining the distance that exists, the gap that needs bridging.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the performance lies in a small slip of paper handed without fanfare to members of the press along with the programme. “Due to an injury,” it reads, “Mandy Colleran is unable to appear in tonight’s performance. The show has been reconfigured to cover her part.” If we hadn’t been told, we would scarcely have noticed. A couple of questions reveal that Mandy fell forwards out of her wheelchair the day before the show’s run was due to begin; she is currently recovering in hospital. In the programme, a full-page picture of Mandy is accompanied by a Q&A in which she says, “I think a lot of disabled people are frightened at the moment that their livelihoods, their lives, their quality of lives are being slowly, or rapidly, eroded or taken away from them.” In the circumstances, I suppose we should all be thankful for the NHS.

  • In Water I'm Weightless at Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre until 4 August
Not too long ago, the only type of theatre open to these performers would have been in a freak show


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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IN WATER IM WEIGHTLESS - this is a beautiful piece of theatre. I am a mother of two teenagers and I was left in total awe of this production. It is does everything it should - detonates stereotypes, makes us realise what we take for granted every single day, exposed me to my own ignorance, taught me what 'disabled' people go through and amongst all that there was laughter too! The cast were amazing. This should be part of the school curriculm.. It is a lesson for us all about humility and the fragility of being human. Only one thing - would have been nice to have seen a character involved with mental health problems - an issue ignored by much of society.

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