A hand on the arm: Gesture, neurodiversity and performance

A Certain Sense of Order. Image: Claire Shovelton @no_commentary

Not I (TourettesHero) and A Certain Sense of Order (Tick Tock)

‘I can’t say how many times I’ve felt so happy’ says Jess Thom, ‘for a hand on my arm’. She is referring to a moment of connection in the play Not I, which she has just performed, and on which she has enacted nothing short of a transformation. Hands recur throughout Beckett’s famous monologue, which at the surface seems only preoccupied with the anatomy of speech – Mouth (the only name given to the speaker), jaws, cheeks, tongue.  The monologue is performed by an isolated mouth, raised eight feet in the air. Mouth recounts her adventures in speech and muteness through a broken and repetitive torrent of words. She lives alone, is barely spoken to. She stands wordless in supermarkets and hands over a bag to be filled with groceries. She rushes into public toilets or out into the streets at moments when she starts to babble uncontrollably, overcome by words which seem to appear out of nowhere. In court, where words determine the future, she stands silent, unable to say, ‘guilty or not guilty’. These sites punctuate the circulating, repetitive phrases which make up most of Not I as Mouth seems to be groping towards something that cannot or will not be said. In the hands of many productions it is this impossibility of saying that becomes the central message of the play. Mouth that cannot truly speak. Mouth that can say everything but what must be said. Mouth as the representation of unspeakable, unrepresentable trauma.

And yet…

In Jess Thom’s hands and in her mouth (both are important) Not I becomes something quite different. The almost-anecdotes of Mouth’s interactions with the social world are not longer interruptions in her attempt to voice the traumatic unsayable, they are precisely what she has to say. They are Mouth’s life. And for Thom, they are even signs of community. In the supermarket Thom notes, somebody helps mouth with her shopping, handing her a bag of what she needs. In court Mouth is ‘glad of the hand on her arm’, happy that there is somebody there to lead her way, to help her. Hands enter Not I attached to invisible people, giving us glimpses of moments of generosity and even perhaps of friendship. In a dramatic world where words are uncontrollable, touch becomes key. People literally reach out to Mouth, and she reaches out to them.

Jess Thom has Tourettes. She identifies as neurodiverse and believes in the social model of disability. After the performance, she describes having been given a copy of Not I by a friend and feeling like it was describing her everyday life. Not I, she says, is the story of someone who experiences automatic speech, who experiences speech they do not recognise. Reading the play at a time when her own tics were worsening, it spoke to her experience deeply.

Plays have histories, and those histories are shaped by those who have access to them. Neurodiverse people have rarely been accepted in traditional theatre-spaces. As Thom wryly points out, the only place she can stand in a theatre where her tics aren’t considered disruptive is on stage. According to the social model of disability, it is not physical ailments that create disability, but a social world that is intolerant of diversity. Neurodiverse people are rendered ‘dis-abled’ in theatres because of social conventions insisting on audiences remaining still and silent (conventions which are sometimes physically, even violently enforced), and auditoriums made up of narrowly spaced seats in which it is difficult to move freely. It is perhaps for this reason that Thom’s Not I seems so strikingly different from the Beckett plays I have seen in the past. It is not her Tourette’s per se that interrupt the sense of detachment that we have come to expect from Beckett’s works. If anything, it’s hard to think of something more Beckettian than the filling of pauses with the words ‘biscuit!’ and ‘cats!’. Rather what is so new, so striking about this production is the experience it articulates, even as it uses the same words the play has always used. The play becomes warm as well as urgent. It invites us in to the possibility of a new, communal form of understanding, rather than pushing us away with its vocal gymnastics. It tells us about an experience rarely addressed in theatre, despite the fact that the words have been there for years – we just never read them that way. Earlier I said that Jess Thom transformed Not I. But that might not be right. She re-discovered it. Learning it, holding it, sharing it in a way that allows us to see another Not I, another Mouth. One that might be open to communication, one we could be there for.

A few weeks ago, I heard an anecdote about the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (thanks to Magda Schmukalla for this anecdote). Lacan had a patient who had lived in mainland Europe in the Second World War, and who had recurring dreams that she was being hunted by the gestapo. She would recount these dreams compulsively in therapy. In one session, whilst she was retelling a gestapo-nightmare, Lacan got up from his chair and gently stroked her face at the moment in which she said the word ‘gestapo’. He replaced it with a new phrase – a touch to the skin – which in French is gêste-à-peau and sounds almost identical to the word ‘gestapo’. According to the anecdote, the woman was cured and ceased to have gestapo-nightmares. The gesture displaced the word, tenderness displaced trauma.

Granted this anecdote is odd, very Lacanian, and maybe a little creepy. But this little story also points us towards the way in which a gesture, a hand, a reaching-out can interrupt a story which we thought was only contained in words and make it something else.

Jess Thom was not the only person to play Mouth in the TourettesHero production of Not I. She was accompanied by Charmaine Wombwell, who live-interpreted the performance, including Thom’s tics into British Sign Language. Wombwell’s signing was beautifully expressive, giving the impression of a double-act, or fully billingual performance, rather than an English performance in translation. Inevitably disrupting the dramaturgy of Not I due to the visibility of her arms and face, Wombwell’s co-performance embodied the changes Thom’s vocal performance introduced to the play, literally allowing the play to reach out to BSL speakers who would not otherwise have been able to access it, as well as reminding all audience members of the embodied nature of communication and sharing. Wombwell’s performance provided a gêste-à-peau to Not I, rupturing the closed-off intellectualism with which it is often associated and returning it to the accessible auditorium: a place in which we were invited to get comfortable, move freely and interact with those around us.

A Certain Sense of Order by Tick Tock begins with a gêste-à-peau, a hand on the face. Based on Anne Sexton’s poem ‘For John, who begs me not to enquire further’, A Certain Sense of Order reinterprets Sexton’s work as a double act, converting confessional poetry into an act of communal sharing that involves gesture, rhythm and song. Two female singers, Rebecca Cuddy and Rosie Middleton, almost identically dressed in semi-formal 60s-style blouse and trousers slowly repeat a series of actions: touching a hand to their cheeks, miming a series of knocks, opening a clenched fist and raising both cupped hands to their heads then lowering them face up, as if removing a hat and then extending it in an offering. Eventually one performer begins to strike out a rhythm on a typewriter, and the singers cyclically speak and sing the short poem accompanied variously by piano, the typewriter, a water bowl, and finally Ann Sexton’s own recorded rendition of the work.  There is a short break for discussion and the performance is started again, almost identically, but with enough careful changes to make us wonder if we are watching a repetition or a variation.

A beautifully wrought piece of theatre, A Certain Sense of Order raises interesting questions about the relationship between poetry, music and opera, and verse and its embodiment in performance. It also introduces intimacy and warmth into a classic work, albeit in a different way to Thom’s Not I. There were two sections of the poem to which Cuddy and Middleton returned repeatedly which for me formed a focal point for the work, and which might particularly speak to us as audience members with an interest in the medical humanities. Early in the performance, both repeat lines referring to the mind as contained in a glass bowl:

I tapped my own head;
it was a glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl

Moments later the bowl returns, this time as an object, quotidian and yet a symbol of sharing:

And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining

Bowls ran through A Certain Sense of Order like hands through Not I, connecting the spoken metaphors with the water bowl placed in front of the singers and occasionally played and sung into by them, and the series of gestures which began and ended the performance, which mimed knocking onto the ‘inverted bowl’ of the skull cavity, only to lower cupped hands from the head, and extend them as if in offering. Just as the bowl moves from being an image of containment in Sexton’s poem, somewhere to rage alone, to an image of awkward social persistence, so the bowl itself moves from being held in the confessional framework of the poem to taking on a communal material existence in the theatre. A Certain Sense of Order seems to literalise the central ideas in Sexton’s poem: that even though there may be no ‘lesson here’, in the personal experiences of mental distress to which her poetry often refers, there is nonetheless something hopeful, communal and somehow ordinary in those mental experiences which we are culturally inclined to cast as both private and strange.

Working in the medical humanities we are often inclined to focus on the exceptionality of the experiences we describe, whether they may be illnesses, neurodiverse conditions or disabilities. Not I and A Certain Sense of Order remind us that all conditions, medical or otherwise, nonetheless take place in spaces that are social and ordinary – made up of hands and bowls, kitchens and supermarkets. When handled deftly performance can remind us of the materiality of any form of supposedly mental experience, providing a gêste-à-peau which might interrupt us, and prompt us to notice eachother.

A Certain Sense of Order is touring and will be next performed at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 27/10/2018 

Not I is touring and will be performed at the Lowry, Manchester on 20/11/2018 – 21/11/2018

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