Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, an aviator and wing walker, who tragically suffers a stroke which renders her without speech. We watch as she struggles to make sense of her situation, desperately trying to rediscover her voice and sense of self in this visually striking, powerful yet sometimes frustrating production.
Stevenson spends the entire time strapped into a harness and hoisted above the stage. She summersaults, glides and swoops for the full 75 mins and her strength, courage and commitment to this is admirable. However, it’s a device that sometimes overwhelms the production and the only scene that sees her stationary as part of a group therapy session is also the most effective.
The first third of this production is frustratingly alienating. With fractured light, live and pre-recorded sound, we are immersed in a confusing sense of time and place where nothing is recognisable or familiar. Of course this is the point as it reflects Emily’s inner turmoil and confusion but it only succeeds in frustrating us as we struggle to make sense of what is going on. I know I wasn’t the only one to be more interested watching Stevenson fly above the stage and thinking how much fun it would be.
Slowly her conditions change as she learns to communicate. As she discovers words through speech therapy her world becomes clearer and more consistent and as a result more engaging for us. Her childlike excitement at re-discovering the words for ‘tears’ and ‘snow’ is moving and her developing friendship with speech therapist Amy (Lorna Brown) is thoughtful and sensitive.
It is a tour-de-force performance from Juliet Stevenson who moves seamlessly from terror, confusion to childish wonder and giddiness as she re-learns the use of a toothbrush. Despite her development she always remains in another realm for us and therefore untouchable. There is strong support from the rest of the cast who weave in and out as doctors and patients and always contributing to this confusing, surreal and enlightening existence.
This is a richly theatrical, bold and visual production. It may not fully take flight as a whole but Stevenson gives us a fascinating insight into a world we hope never to experience.
Wings plays at the Young Vic Theatre until 4th November
Words by Matthew Hyde