“You have no higher brain function; you’re in a coma…”
Described as “an experimental drama taking place within the world of a coma”, What It Feels Like is a new play drawing from several performance disciplines to explore a metaphysical world between life and death, where a life lived is re-examined, mistakes re-assessed and one of just two ways out of the coma must be chosen. The show is previewing briefly at the New Wimbledon Theatre before heading up to Edinburgh in August as part of the Festival.
The play starts with a couple, Nick and Sarah, meeting in a lift and clumsily agreeing to go to a party together but reality soon starts to crumble away, words and thoughts get confused, shadowy figures start to invade the space and it soon emerges that they have been involved in a car crash and we’re actually in the realm of Nick’s subconscious as he is trapped in a coma. Guided by a pair of spiritual guides, the comic double-act of Lester and Simpson, he is taken back to various points in his life, specifically relating to his marriage to Sarah which had taken an unhappy turn, to confront the choices he made and to determine what, if any, chance his subconscious mind has of coming out of the coma.
Mixing in physical theatre and movement sequences with this bittersweet love story and the black comedy of the agents results in a rather uneven experience. There are moments when things clash or feel a little awkward, but then there are also moments of theatrical delight and beauty. The detailing of the rise and fall of their relationship was sketched in very convincingly as was the general eeriness of the strange surroundings, keeping the audience on its toes as to what might come next. The introduction of the comic note was something of a mis-step I feel, the piece benefitted from some of the mordant humour but it didn’t always come off, the agents in particular needing more of the serious stuff to balance it out; and the lack of clarity about just how long Nick and Sarah had been together (to me at least) didn’t always play too well, especially over one of the crucial plot points – unevenness extending to the casting here in both cases which didn’t always help matters.
Casting an eye over the production credits reveals that there was a director, an assistant director, two aesthetic directors and two dramaturges involved in the show, and sometimes it shows in the pick’n’mix approach to the influences drawn on. The shadowy Aspects start off working in the Kuroko style, as ‘invisible’ stage-hands manipulate both props and people: it adds to the otherworldlyness of the location and dances and fights are given much more interest this way. But then in another close-following sequence, the Aspects are simply used as extras, filling out a scene though still dressed in their all-black ensembles: their role in this world changes confusingly. Likewise, the use of music playing throughout scenes was frustratingly inconsistent, adding atmosphere effectively when Alex Burnett’s score was deployed as it was to a considerable degree, but thus exposing the few scenes when it was not.
The ambition on display here from Encompass is admirable and the enthusiasm to experiment and embrace the different is clearly evident, it just needs to be marshalled more firmly, perhaps with a single artistic vision that will make their point more strongly and create a clearer sense of tone. What It Feels Like features a whirl of interesting ideas, some more successful than others, which if drawn together more tightly could provide a sharper focus to this intriguing premise.