Weight/Wait is a very enjoyable performance, offering in its particularity both lighthearted comedy and a certain soreness. Depicting an individual’s struggles with anxiety, this play provides a sense of respite and solidarity but also a unique depiction of a widespread yet vastly misunderstood mental disorder.
Babbling and uttering nonsensical phrases, incessantly shadowing Karen (Katharine Richardson), drawing attention to the trivial, the strange and the inanimate, anxiety is in this performance a personified figure (represented by Caldonia Walton). This figure of anxiety remains in its ludicrousness dehumanised, disembodied. Both voice work and choreography produce this effect, causing the figure to seem otherworldly, estranged, fluid and weightless. This is highly effective for many reasons, one in particular being that real anxiety itself is so flitting, multifaceted, subjective and temporary that it is difficult to pinpoint, describe and define. It is the fear of the possible, the potential and often roots itself in the imaginary, in overthought, in an unreality. Characterising it as Karen’s shadow, however unoriginal this dramatic technique seems on paper, really is successful in this performance, for it enables us to project our understanding onto something tangible, physical and concrete and not just theoretical, something beyond our control and fixed intellect, and this autonomy of sorts inherent to the personified figure makes it possible for our views and our reason to be challenged and altered.
Oftentimes, Walton’s portrayal of anxiety is juvenile, endearing and fearful. It is as though a cute child, hugging onto Karen’s legs, following closely behind her, hesitant towards the world beyond Karen’s care. It seems oddly full of creativity and wonder, its mind racing from thought to idea to situation to fear, making gestures into dance, sounds into soundscapes and, of course, puppets out of coats. A world complemented by anxiety seems laughable and entertaining…until this is turned upside down.
As movements become more frantic, more menacing, as anxiety physically forces Karen to the ground or throws her in the air, holding her hostage to its threatening and draining grasp, entrapping her arms, weighing her down, our view of anxiety starts to change. There is a notable shift from a stereotypical general anxiety — that which our culture is most exposed to yet most unaware of — to a deeper, rawer and unendurable anxiety that sufferers face every day. In fact, there are many disquieting, unnerving and frightful images conjured by the choreography in this performance, one particularly shocking image being Karen’s choking with the figure of anxiety wrapped around her waist. This image, being lengthily and effectively sustained, was most successful in its demonstration of the suffocative and overwhelming nature of anxiety.
However, this is not to say that the choreography cannot improve. This image in particular could definitely have been ameliorated. I would have liked to have seen more movement from Walton who just seemed to be hugging Richardson rather stiffly. Walton should have used her weight against Richardson, applying a mimic pressure to her waist to enable us to further visualise this constriction. The overall choreography is also in slight (though, only slight) danger of becoming too repetitive with Walton’s lifts, her standing behind Richardson and wrapping her arms around her, or the synchronised dancing which often sees the two dancing from side to side with weighted swaying arms.
All of this being said, choreography was very good, providing a versatile repertoire that accommodated the content of the performance very finely. There is a vast sense of danger and risk in the movements that not only represent anxiety but that would naturally cause anxiety or unsettledness in any human audience: Richardson positioned precariously on Walton's shoulders, high in the air; Walton lying twisted on the floor, her feet lifted up to form a perfect yet paradoxical seat for Richardson; the forceful pushes to the ground; etc.
Throughout every action and movement, there is a story, a sense of development, of mental regression or progress, of change. This leads me to consider the story itself and the way it is communicated. The dramatic text offers very little speech, barring that which is utterly necessary to progress the narrative, and this is most successful because, as I mentioned before, this renders an ineffable and visceral disorder expressible and hence comprehensible. Eliminating verbal language means that the language remains fastidiously and intellectually rooted in the physical, eliminating any univocality in the performance — in other words, the material becomes multi-interpretational and is not limited to the definitiveness of words and the clearcut categories they impose. To chart Karen’s experience of anxiety through movement is hence a very intelligent and powerful decision, referencing also the psychophysical effects of the disorder.
There is, however, a vast lack of subjectivity in this performance, which is both a positive and a negative thing. A lack of subjectivity is positive because it sheds light on the fundaments of the disorder alone which a large number of people would not be familiar with, but negative because it limits the performance to only a general introduction into a very complex and, above all, personal experience. More complicatedly, we are provided with a character, Karen, which then fictionalises both the disorder and its symptoms. We find it easy after watching this performance, then, to leave the disorder in the world of the play and to not apply anything to the real world we then quit it for, merely projecting any newfound understanding of the condition onto our understanding of a fictional character. So, not only does the performance limit its applicability through a good amount of generalisations but also through fictionalisation.
I find the character of Karen to be rather unnecessary, ironically. There is nothing particularly unique about her character; we do not learn anything about her at all besides the fact that she is a sufferer of anxiety. Why, then, not name her [Anxiety] Sufferer? This would rework the way we consider Karen, de-fictionalising her so as not to consider her as a character but as a potential real person with a title we can recognise as an attribute of others in the real world beyond the play. Especially with the exercise of writing the letter (which I shall detail later), it is clear that this performance intends to represent a personal experience, with intimacy, yet there is very little to connect us with Karen as a character. Either this performance should remain as a thought-provoking, characterless introduction to anxiety or, in order to remain more dramatic instead of didactic, it should concentrate more on personality, on this subjectivity.
What is more, I felt that more research could have been done into the treatments of anxiety, in order to explore more coping, corrective, palliative or reversal techniques. Breathing calmly is really the only thing presented as a way out for Karen, and it seems that as soon as she starts to do that, all of her anxiety disappears, the figure of anxiety itself becoming weaker, desperate, moribund. This is a most inaccurate and dilute representation, dampening the otherwise rich material we are presented with throughout the dramatic text.
In fact, I must admit that many elements of the ending were rather disappointing to me, the biggest feeling of dissatisfaction coming from Karen outwardly asking her anxiety to dance with her. Whilst I understand that the intention was to show that Karen was now in control of her anxiety, nurturing it to meet her own needs and newfound logic, I cannot ignore this utter shift in style and content. Again, ignorant of the true hardship of challenging one’s own anxiety beyond breathing techniques, this scene felt much too melodramatic, transforming the figure of anxiety into a palpable and sentient character with feelings and a [rather metatheatrical] yearning to dance[?]. Suddenly, the movements are over-joyous and loud, paired with a one-off jazz number and disconnected from the entire choreography of the rest of the performance until then. I fail to see why Karen and her anxiety would be so gleeful together, why they would be partnered in synchronicity and rhythm, as opposed to Karen being in control and blocking out her anxiety altogether. It just felt far too comedic, as though Walton and Richardson felt that the performance would benefit from — or, rather, was in need of — a cathartic happy ending where all the characters were united and where it felt as though nothing bad had ever happened.
There is another element of this performance I have not discussed: audience interaction (or, indeed, participation). As the audience members enter the house, they are each accosted by Walton, who, amongst her skittish utterances and malfunctioning dancing, urges them to take a pen because “You'll need it!” It is only in retrospect, after having worked out what Walton’s persona represents, that one can recognise how clever this initially off-putting and harrying opening is. It is difficult to ignore Walton as she jumps in front of you, but it is also difficult to ignore other people’s reactions as they enter the space and are accosted in the same way.
On the night I attended the performance, spectators started to enjoy watching other people squirm as they entered, laughing and commenting on them. This is a wonderful set-up for this performance: it immediately instals anxiety in the spectator, however shortlived (“What's going on? This is embarrassing.” “Do I actually need this pen or is this just a skit?”), and then we are exposed to the onlooker’s rather judgemental and self-serving reactions and remarks. In this dynamic, the performance has successfully created, nay unearthed, a social reality, exposing our own anxiety and the way in which we view the anxiety of others.
Then, on each seat is a blank letter entitled ‘Dear Karen’ that the audience members are later invited to fill out with anything they would like to say to Karen, and to read this back to her. This is a clever way of making the audience rethink the way they address anxiety, to force them to offer compassion and directly interact with the action they have seen. This is accentuated in the middle of the performance when Walton sits as part of the audience, now assuming the role as Karen’s therapist: disturbing our territory and assuming such a role within it causes us to subliminally assume this role ourselves, as well; there is a strong sense of ‘us’ and ’them’. There is also a sense of cyclicality, the only audience interactions being during these moments where we are made to deal with anxiety, and all of this subtly affects the way we acknowledge, relate to and engage with the performance.
However, I feel that these moments, whilst being heartwarming, insightful and somewhat cathartic, are much too mild and short-lived. There is not enough focus on us as spectators to give us such a demanding role and poignancy. In fact, there was one other –– slight –– interaction with a spectator where Karen threw an imaginary ball at him, inciting no reaction whatsoever. This, I believe, is because the action seemed so self-contained, limited to only the performers; any active engagement from the audience in this way seems unnecessary and improbable. I would be careful as to what position this performance leaves its audience in between these two major interactions, the accost at the beginning and the letter-writing at the end, paying close attention to the potential stagnancy of the audience and how they might be enlivened more regularly and structurally as active participants or witnesses, etc., throughout the performance.
A final note on theatrical components. Lighting (designed by Sam Thomas) was used rather scarcely, and I think this is a good decision, noting the continuity of the dramatic text (having very few transitions). It effectively drew the eye’s focus, particularly at some point after the therapist scene in a scene wherein Karen and her anxiety fight for the limelight, so to speak, the lights bouncing between the two of them in succession as they speak one at a time. Music (Alex Paton) was most appropriate, adding texture and tone, yet, again, the use of jazz music in this final sequence was most disconnected and displeasing. Costume was most effective in demonstrating a connection between Karen and her anxiety. Any dissimilarity between the two, in this respect, would have been erroneous in this performance — which is why I am rather confused as to why Walton’s hair was styled differently to Richardson’s, despite this being more than possible and everything else being so utterly identical. Other than this small dissimilarity, the two were perfectly visually united.
The minimal use of props served this performance well, as the choreography was very strong, yet when props are employed, it is not with the best of care. The glasses used to transform Walton into the therapist, for example, are simple yet effective, a needed prop, I think. Yet, the way they are discarded, thrown across the stage, seems much too brusque and thoughtless. As for the coat, I feel that there is a slight misalignment in the way it is used. The coat seems to embody the figure of anxiety itself, becoming animate and disparaging Karen directly, commenting on her appearance amongst other things. I feel it would be more effective and coherent to have the coat serve as more of a motif of items that cause anxiety, rather than anxiety itself acting through these items, the ultimate message being: “Something might happen if you do [not] wear me!” or “Remember what happened last time you did[n’t] wear me?”.
A good example of what I mean here is when Karen is reminded of the toaster that might still be left on. In this example, there is something triggering her to think about the toaster; it is not the toaster demeaning or undermining her, demonstrating its own intellect and analytical skillset. Anxiety resulting from suchlike stimuli should be what is dealt with here. Coats having inherent relationships with the outside, the potential trauma the outside world could bring Karen could be the focus, for instance. This would further contextualise the use of the coat as a constant onstage presence and as something so regularly forced into Karen’s awareness by the figure of anxiety who swoops it around her regularly whilst dancing with it. As one last note on this, I would invest in some non-slip coat-hangers so as to avoid the coat falling onto the floor unwantedly as it did during this particular performance.
Overall, an extremely endearing performance that serves as a good introduction to anxiety and the life of its sufferers. This is an engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking performance; it is just in need of a few tweaks here and there, notably where style or overall message are concerned.
“A very entertaining and considerate performance.”
Photography credit: Mickael Marso Riviere.