Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson clearly work well together. I still think about their Happy Days, which I saw also in this theatre back in 2014. And now with Wings, they have brought to life Arthur Kopit’s affecting examination of the trauma of strokes and the challenge of recovery in a dynamic production.
Immediately we are thrown into the thick of things for, as soon as the play starts, Juliet Stevenson’s Mrs Stilson has her stroke. And, straight out the gate, Juliet is strapped into an aerial harness where she stays throughout the eighty minutes running time of the show.
The experience must be quite a physical challenge and, no doubt, by the end of the run, Juliet will have some rock-hard abdominals. But the decision to do this has a potent effect for Mrs Stilson is no longer on solid ground and, throughout her long, hard battle of a recovery, she only fitfully connects with the world around her – but it is a connection she eventually commits to making.
This visual representation of not having secure footing, of not being stable, of not having the safety and security of being able to connect to those around you, is emphasised further by a constantly shifting floor, which Juliet only occasionally touches with the tip of her toes, her placement gradually becoming stronger over time.
It’s a powerful visual – and one that stays with you. Yet, for a set-up where words are key – the loss of the ability to communicate, which in turn brings loneliness and isolation – the visuals do take over somewhat. You are more dazzled by Juliet’s mid-air gymnastics and the gentle manoeuvres around a vase of flowers than you are by the confused jumble of words that tumble from her lips.
To us, Mrs Stilson’s language makes no sense. Not only are words are confused and misused, but some are barely even words we’d recognise. They are fictional terms, a creation of a muddled mind. Yet, alone, Mrs Stilson makes perfect sense to herself. She knows what she means, even if no one else does. And that irritation at not being able to make herself understood is palpable.
As her fragmented mind pieces itself back together, it reveals a daredevil past where Mrs Stilson was a wing-walker with an adventurous life. In her almost dream state, she imagines herself back in the memories she recalls. She feels that exhilaration once again. But, in reality, her basic motor skills are child-like; reality becoming an exercise in humiliation and frustration for a woman who once went further than so many others dared.
And it’s the emotional tone of the show as we explore this clash between fiction and reality that I found the most touching and the most unexpected.
There’s a real sense of joy and freedom to Juliet’s Mrs Stilson as she floats and glides above the stage, as if the state of her internal thoughts – chaotic as they are, and often unable to discern between dreams and memories – brings her a greater happiness than the restriction of language and conformity in our world. As if the fragmented mind remains more colourful, more desirable, than the life of an elderly patient.
And, much like the stage underneath Juliet’s feet, that emphasis shifts gently shifts, with Mrs Stilson’s desire for connection and community compelling her to invest more effort into re-learning vocabulary and language just so she can feel part of the world again. And, certainly, the touching friendship she builds up with her speech therapist (Lorna Brown) demonstrates that perfectly.
Wings is a beautiful examination of a splintered, fractured mind, the complex emotions wrapped up in recovery, and an understanding of what we are prepared to endure just so we can connect to the world around us.
Young Vic, London, to November 4, 2017
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Johan Persson.