DUBLIN ENSEMBLE Corn Exchange are among the notable Irish acts in this year’s Galway Arts Festival. The company will perform its acclaimed staging of Freefall, which was accorded the laurels of Best New Play and Best Director - for Annie Ryan - at the 2009 Irish Theatre Awards.
Written by Michael West, Freefall plunges the audience into an intense rush of extraordinary images and tangled memories as it recreates the experiences of what it is like to suffer a stroke.
The play takes us inside the head of its central character, a nameless man, as he endures a series of flashbacks to the pivotal moments of his life. People and places swirl around him as he desperately tries to piece them all together.
Speaking about the play from his Dublin home, author Michael West reveals that it was initially inspired by the remarkable story of American neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor.
“I came across this amazing website called TED.com which hosts video presentations by various people,” he says. “There was a presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor who’s a Harvard neuroscientist who studies stroke-type injuries. She herself suffered a massive stroke in her early thirties and she recovered, luckily, after a long process.
“She does this amazing 20 minute story that is so inspiring and funny and passionate. Annie and I watched it. We thought it was an interesting idea, the stroke idea, what happens to you, it’s something we could go with.
“The emotion and wit and compassion in Bolte Taylor’s account was also a great source of inspiration as much as the story of what it’s like to have a stroke ‘from the inside’. The play isn’t about her per se though, we were looking at the idea of a stroke as a metaphor for Ireland, and this kind of life, and the idea of it all stopping.”
West expands on how Freefall took shape: “When Annie and I work on these projects it starts as loose conversations, ‘What’s this story like?’ ‘Who’s in it?’ and so on. What we had at that point was two couples, the idea I was quite keen to push was some kind of dinner party from hell.
“This horrible night would happen where everything would go wrong and this character would have a stroke. We saw that the stroke itself can be an amazing theatrical language. It’s like that film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly; we thought we could do something that was a theatrical equivalent of that; from the highly subjective view of one guy’s life and have it all unravelling. We felt there was a beautiful story to be told about the subjective quality of a guy’s life.”
As the play evolved it deviated away from the example of Bolte Taylor’s story.
“Jill Bolte Taylor’s one of those unstoppably optimistic American types that you don’t really come across in Ireland,” West explains. “We felt if our guy had a stroke he wouldn’t have that kind of optimism that would help him to get over it. He also wouldn’t have access to the Harvard neuroscientist trust, Taylor basically had her mates operating on her head!
“But if you’re just an ordinary guy who isn’t very used to sticking up for himself then what would happen to him in current Ireland? He would probably end up slipping away. He himself doesn’t have the language to fight back. That’s kind of how we made sense of the story.”
West outlines which aspects of the story particularly lent themselves to theatrical expression.
“One of the things theatre can do, for example in a play like Philadelphia Here I Come, is you can have ghosts or split personalities wandering around the stage, and though the people on stage might not be able to see them we the audience can,” he says. “That engages an imaginative power that is extraordinarily interesting.
“So we can have this guy in a hospital bed and his mother comes in and then someone else can come in and his mother can transform in front of him. We can sense the way in which everything is unstable and memory flows into other memories, our experiences sometimes take us over and sometimes we inhabit them.
“That was the kind of thing that we were very excited about; you could have flashbacks, like he’d be at the dinner table and his old teacher would suddenly be sitting at the table unannounced and no-one knows how he got there and then he’s gone again.”
The cast of Freefall features Andrew Bennett as the stroke victim, Damian Kearney, Declan Conlon, Ruth McGill, and Janet Moran.
“The acting is extraordinary,” West declares. “It’s quite a sad story yet I found it the most uplifting experience of my writing life. There’s this sadness and poignancy of a life disappearing in front of you yet it’s also incredibly funny and satisfying.”
Freefall runs at the Black Box Theatre from Monday July 12 to Saturday 17 at 8pm nightly. Tickets are available from the festival box office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street, and www.galwayartsfestival.com