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‘Engaging insights into living with & exploring the nature of disability’: Unlimited Festival – Southbank Centre (Online review)

Festivals are a vital part of the theatre ecosystem, a place to try out new material, explore form and style while giving a valuable platform to all kinds of performance. These activities have been among the hardest hit during the period of closure with big events including the Vault Festival which would have started in a couple of weeks, Latitude 2020 was unable to go ahead while a question mark hangs over even this year’s Edinburgh Festival after last year’s cancellation. As part of theatre’s hoped-for reorientation to new voices and theatremakers in 2021, the Southbank Centre has hosted a free four day cultural celebration – the Unlimited Festival – combining music, dance, art and theatre with several digital premieres and on-demand screenings all created by disabled performers and creatives.

The theatre and performance offerings as with any festival have been eclectic covering topics as diverse as human connection in a shopping mall, communication through hip hop, the experience of running and mindfulness. Some of the most intriguing have used their disability as the architecture of a show which explores both impediments to and enhancements of an individual’s engagement with society. Three quite different pieces of theatre have been among the most engaging both in content and use of theatre forms to engage with the viewer in this newly configured digital space.


Sophie Woolley’s one-woman show Augmented was filmed at the onset of the first lockdown when the show’s original tour was cancelled and uses its 70-minute autobiographical format to realign the experience of hearing loss. Primarily, it considers the extent to which medical intervention has far wider implications for how Woolley is seen by her loved ones and how her perceptions of the world are intriguingly compromised by the opportunity to ‘fix’ her hearing. Part-celebration, part comedy story and part semi-immersive visual representation of hearing loss and the ‘cyborg’ Woolley proudly becomes, Augmented uses its chronological structure to explore how our physical experience becomes entwined with personality and how concepts of ‘normality’ can shift throughout our lives.

In a Q&A with director Rachel Bagshaw, the concept of Woolley as several different versions of herself emerged during the preparatory process – the writer, the performer and the subject – and the episodic nature of the storytelling replicates this with scenes in which Woolley is cast in the role of daughter, girlfriend, patient, colleague, friend and short-story creator, all of which link seamlessly together while offering a perspective on the very ordinary challenges faced by most people and how these are reorientated by hearing loss and debates around medical intervention.

Some of the most enjoyable sections include a crucial book signing with a well-known author that the character of Sophie is barely able to communicate with because her sign interpreter has called in sick. How this scenario escalates from polite but awkward interaction to reveal the rising fury of Sophie’s internal monologue and vital missed opportunity to network is hilariously managed, a technique that infuses Augmented as Woolley distinguishes between the reactions and expectations of others as well as Sophie’s own needs and complex emotional reactions.

And these personal connections are what adds a valuable texture to Woolley’s show, peopling the story with useful sketches of family and friends that enhance and affect her own perspective. But through these interactions the audience begins to understand the subtle underlying political points that Woolley outlines. After her implant, Sophie is chastised by her mother for turning her face away during conversation making it impossible to lipread and opening-up an interesting avenue that considers what aspects of hearing we take for granted, behavioural etiquette and some challenging ideas about the ‘relief’ that family and friends imply when they expect Sophie to return to ‘normal’ as Woolley honestly weighs up the advantages and relationship changes of the augmented sound she eventually hears, part of the show which is ripe for development.

The visual dynamic of the show is designed with the audience in mind and while muted on screen, the use of rolling text projected onto the springy rear curtain, an immersive soundscape of loud noises, bleeps and chimes as well as the use of lighting to demarcate the fantasy moments are designed to inclusively convey as much of the show to the audience as possible. Music has a different role to play, one that is integral to the character of Sophie who enjoyed clubs as a young adult with full hearing and who comes to relish the opportunities to ‘bluetooth’ music through her cochlear implant in quite a different way to natural hearing. As she dances in several sections of Augmented, the joy and freedom of the experience is vividly expressed and in a show with a single protagonist it also creates an energy onstage that allows Woolley to connect different parts of her life and her evolving experience of the soundscape as she incrementally moves between the stages of her life.

I Was Naked, Smelling of Rain

Aidan Moseby’s 50-minute show couldn’t be more different and more relevant to this most protracted period of social isolation. I Was Naked Smelling of Rain draws direct parallels between the British obsession with weather and the ways in which the terminology of climate filters through the language of mental health and of loneliness in particular. Like Woolley, Moseby uses the performance format to chart his own experience of a condition that continues to affect his interaction with the world in some unexpected ways, explored within the chapters of his monologue.

Staged by Director Daniel Bye as a dramatic reading, there is something of the formal natural science lecture about Moseby’s visual choices sitting next to his laptop in a room constructed to look like a small study that enhances the very personal nature of the show while creating an atmosphere when Moseby draws on historical and anecdotal examples to expand on his central thesis. Lighting and Duncan Speakman’s sound creates further tension in the narrative, particularly in segments where Moseby honestly discusses the melancholy and even suicidal urges that occasionally overwhelm him.

But I Was Naked Smelling of Rain is a piece built on language, its simplicity not perhaps inherently theatrical, but made vivid for the audience through Moseby’s descriptive passages that lend a compelling authenticity to his performance. The simple and everyday experience of supermarket shopping or parking his car become significant hurdles to overcome in a mind seeking order and routine, where deciding between too many types of tomato or driving two hours to find someone else is in his favourite space may be amusing on one level but Moseby unceremoniously shows how affecting these events could be for someone unable to take his neural processes and emotional reaction for granted.

The range of Moseby’s research which relishes the almost poetic expression of weather epigrams is impressive, drawing together a range of material that reinforce and find strong resonance in the experiences he conveys. That weather is simultaneously a tool for small talk, a national obsession and is filled with words that can be applied as readily to describe his varied interior landscape encourages the audience to think more broadly not only about the diverse impacts of chronic loneliness in particular but the etymology of its verbal expression. Like Woolley, Mosley is able to take the viewer somewhat inside his own perspective, honest about the challenges of his condition but, with new connections forming, tentatively optimistic about the future.

Instagramming the Apocalypse

A complete contrast again is Byron Vincent’s 75-minute film adapted from his original stage show and exactly what an arts festival is for – a chance for creatives to explore new avenues for their output while testing the limits of their material. A first-time filmmaker, Instagramming the Apocalypse was recorded entirely on Vincent’s phone and comments on the lure of social media, the creation of anxiety and the consequences of these platforms for real-life interaction using a to-camera narrative about relationship infidelity and its aftermath.

Vincent uses a pseudo-documentary style to make his argument, combining the unfolding story with related digressions about his own experience of PTSD and Bi-polar disorder as well as contextual discussions about the nature of media platforms and some of the science behind it. And while the original show uses the live audience as the confident, here the camera becomes the sympathetic viewer as the open and charming Vincent plays with concepts of fake news, narrative authority and reliability across this astutely managed piece that uses the nature of storytelling to reveal how easily our brains rely on and believe in misconceptions and misdirection.

The central story itself is a relatively simple one but what makes Instagramming the Apocalypse so fascinating is its visual style created in the editing process using layers of images, split screens and rapid cuts to bombard the viewer with pictorial messages. Building on graffiti and pop art styles, the collage effect and speed of change is brilliantly conceived, the entire film buzzes with energy and an urban style that is unrelenting but absorbing. This is cleverly balanced by the use of text message exchanges that appear on screen, social media posts and profiles that add to the impact while many of the camera pieces are filmed against the Brutalist backdrop of the Barbican which ties the visual experience together.

The final 10 minutes of the film has perhaps too many concluding moments – the danger of wrapping-up the central storyline and making a key switch in our perspective too soon is that for the audience it makes whatever follows seem elongated as the energy which has built so skillfully through the film seeps away in a little too much explanation – a problem even Shakespeare had where final scenes can feel protracted after the conclusive dramatic moment. In the ensuing Q&A Vincent was modest about his skills as a novice filmmaker but on a very small budget has produced an exciting act of performance and one that uses its raw appeal to great effect.

With such contrasting experiences, styles and stories, Woolley, Moseby and Vincent have offered very different but equally engaging insights into living with and exploring the nature of their disability. The joy of a Festival is combining such varied and imaginative responses to their experiences using the structure and technical opportunities of theatre to reimagine their perspectives for an inclusive audience. With so many festivals cancelled, the Southbank Centre’s curation of this four-day digital event was something to celebrate and a chance to see theatre, film, dance and art produced by creatives who will have much to contribute when the industry revives.

The Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival ran from 13 to 17 January and included screenings of Augmented, I Was Naked, Smelling of Rainand Instagramming the Apocalypse. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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