How vulnerable we are. How naked we stand before the world when grief unmasks us. How fragile the complexity of our minds, all parts so intricately linked that there is no way of discerning where the broken thread lies, our equinamity so precariously balanced on an inverted pyramid of preconditions that are themselves precariously balanced.
By what miracle are most of us healthy, functional individuals, and what chance throws others a raw deal? I’m not talking about the vagaries of social or economic circumstance or geography but of the very means to cope with external realities. I’m talking about mental illness.
And is mental illness a raw deal or is it constructed to be so by a society that fails to provide a place for it?
Ideally, law is designed to protect the most vulnerable, although manipulation by the powerful undermines this aim. Why then does the society we have created through daily mundane expectations not strive toward the same nobility of purpose? Instead, we construct a culture that presumes everyone is psychologically healthy, or at least has the capacity to achieve a semblence of health, and leave no room for those who are ill. We try force the depressives, the schizophrenics, the autistics, the phobics to conform to a construct that will never encompass them, and in doing so we not only deny that which makes them unique but compound the harm done to them and ourselves.
Can the mentally ill fulfil a constructive role? Can a space be created in which that is possible? Is our very language not damaging? Can mental illness really be a difference rather than an illness?
These are the ruminations The Inconvenience of Wings induces. Not that it asks these questions directly, rather it is the subject on which it pivots that leads thoughts this way. Perhaps there are no answers, The Inconvenience of Wings certainly provides none. Not even James the professor of psychiatry played by Mncedisi Shabangu attempts any as he assists Paul (Andrew Buckland) in dealing with the manic depression suffered by his wife Sara (Jennifer Steyn).
Another indirect question raised by the casts’ acutely magnificent performance of Lara Foot’s script was the nature of creativity and the demands it makes on the individual. People such as Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath are mentioned in dialogue dealing with one of Sara’s upswings.
Yet in the realism of this play, Sara, although she threatens to embark on the creative urge to write a novel, remains bound by motherhood and domesticity within the violent and oppressed context of South Africa circa 1961 to 1995, a context that weighs heavily on her intense sensitivity to the external world.
Foot is remarkably specific about time and place in a text which deals with personal rather than a political subject, explained perhaps in a monologue by James that the personal and political are indivisable, in South Africa at least, and Foot is South African and as sensitive of the external world as her character Sara is. The specificity led to a period of bewilderment as to how Shabangu’s presence can be explained in a suburban Pretoria during a period that spans almost all but the last year of Nationalist Party rule. But under the masterful direction she exhibits in this work, that bewilderment heightened a sense of suspense which was skilfully resolved rather than creating a discordant note. One moment remains as an example of this team’s expertise: Buckland, having knelt beside the sofa to entreat Steyn, simply remains there after she has bolted to centre stage in a manic fit of pique and frustration, an amazingly understated gesture of despair.
A discordant note I could not discern in this play, the realism of which was echoed in the craftsmanship of the appropriately raked box set that placed all the action in an interior setting which none of the characters ever exited. The way this is played out is a further masterstroke of direction, the character absent from dialogue fading into the dark grey walls, the colour of which further emphasised the oppression of the monotonous landscape of emotion Sara was expected to accept being forced into.
The landscape of emotion, which in the play was far from monotonous, was expertly illuminated by Mannie Manim who hit all the right spots with absolute precision. A precision reflected by the actors who provided an engrossing, consumate performance in which Buckland and Shabangu subtly communicate their own conflicts in a situation overshadowed by the overtness of Steyn’s struggle to create a tapestry so intricately interwoven that its luxuriousness envelopes us in the sanctuary of their ability.
This play belies its genre with moments of symbolism and seduce us to contemplate situations and emotions from which many of us are thankfully removed, the intricacy and delicacy of which is strengthened to invulnerable proportions thanks to the vitality of its portrayal.
The Inconvenience of Wings is on the Main tonight at 20h00 and tomorrow at 14h00 and 20h00. Notes and bookings here.
— Steve Kretzmann