The Carriageworks (studio), Leeds. Saturday 8th July, 2017.
Unspoken, from Leeds Arts Centre, is an important piece of new writing; Neil Rathmell and Trudy Stewart have produced the play under the guidance of members of the local stammering community and the British Stammering Association. The drama draws attention to a sector of society not often spotlit on the stage and does well to raise awareness about the many struggles facing those who stammer; focusing in particular on how it can impact on a person’s identity when they avoid saying what they really want to say as they detour around stutter-inducing language. Unspoken illustrates with insight how stammerers can feel completely alienated by the condition and can find their daily lives; things most people take for granted are highlighted as a privilege in a performance which depicts the protagonist repeatedly choked or gagged by his stammer, personified as an intimidating, swaggering wrestler.
The piece centres around Alex, played by Oliver Sapier, who is getting ready to go to dinner with his girlfriend, where he will propose…and potentially finally tell her about his stammer, which he has taken great pains to disguise. He prepares himself for heading off to this dinner date over the course of the performance, interrupted by his memories of family, past difficulties and a general sense of frustration. While director Trudy Stewart delivers some lovely stylistic features, the production suffers from a distinct lack of movement and subsequent engagement. The cast are on stage throughout, with Alex sitting on or standing at a simple chair at the very front of the stage. This barely changes across the 75 minute piece; various characters step forward (some with unnecessarily slow speed), recreate a memory and then return to the rear of the stage. The memories were well played but for the fact that Alex’s character often doesn’t physically join them, so the characters speak to empty space or the audience as Alex while Alex remains before his mirror. This could well have worked at intervals, but it wasn’t engaging enough to be repeated across the whole performance. Sapier’s performance however, certainly does engage, and he captures the suffocating experience of stammering with clarity and sensitivity in what is clearly a very intensive, demanding role.
Despite the static nature of the piece, I certainly enjoyed the heavy symbolism used; the shirt crafted into a make-shift straight jacket; the beautifully choreographed gradual strangulation of Alex by his stammer (Mark Sowden) and the belt tied around the chest. The prominence of Alex’s mental torment which persistently undermines his decisive nature is both moving and an education. Sowden in particular also stood out in the cast as a strong multi-roler and his towering height alongside his booming voice gave the wrestler character unexpected gravitas (he was wearing a leather wrestling mask for emphasis, which ended up being very effective despite appearing at first to be on the silly side). He put me in mind of the scary train guy from Ghost as he tormented poor Alex with all the pent up fury of a soul in purgatory.
Unspoken certainly educates and raises the profile of a marginalised condition well, while also offering an interesting insight into the lives of others. However, it undoubtedly falls short when it comes to sustaining interest; the claustrophobic, restricted staging may well have been intentional, but it didn’t allow the piece much depth or energy.