Pain: metaphors and melodrama

Josephine Wilson

Bell In the Storm,

Bell In the Storm,

Thunderstorms, the brain, oceans and love.

This by-line for David Buchanan’s new play, A Bell in the Storm, at the Planetarium in Perth promises a heightened theatrical experience. Simon (Luke Hewitt) steps on stage. He probes the audience about our relationship to pain. Who of the audience is in pain right now? How long has this pain lasted?

From these questions, and from the way he inhabits his body, we understand that Simon is a troubled man. And it is a sad story that he tells us. One night driving home, he stops at an intersection. As he waits, chatting idly to his wife and kids on the mobile, headlights loom in the rear vision mirror. A car careers into the back of Simon’s vehicle.

Down the track, Simon is in trouble. He suffers chronic pain as a result of his accident, and has lost his job as a teacher. His marriage has collapsed, and his only support is clinical psychologist, Sally (Rosemarie Lenzo). When Sally visits pain specialist Andrew (Steve Turner) to seek a sympathetic referral for Simon’s pending insurance case, she recognises the doctor as the man she loved nearly 20 years before. Sally solicits Andrew’s support, and tells him that, to date, medical specialists have found no physiological basis—no proof—of Simon’s pain. Hence Sally and Simon fear that his damages case will be dismissed and he will lose everything.

With romantic business temporarily on the backburner, Simon and Andrew have a testy meeting. Luckily for Simon, Andrew is interested in pain, and has studied the effects of trauma on victims of war. Simon eventually opens up to Andrew. While most of Simon’s life is spent barely containing his acute state, he had discovered a way to externalise and manage his pain through photography. While taking photographs of electrical storms, Simon feels no pain. The Planetarium becomes the screen for impressive projections of thunderstorms, which Andrew recognises as a vivid and apt visual metaphor for neuropathic pain. But Simon’s managing of his pain threatens to be his undoing; the insurance company has film of him, able-bodied and limber, out at night with his camera in the storm. Meanwhile, as the court case comes closer, we learn that Sally has kept something hidden from Andrew…

A Bell in the Storm is driven by a passionate desire to critique dominant paradigms of pain which, since the 18th century, have been dominated by the Cartesian mind/body split. As we all know, pain is now largely the property of science and the pharmaceutical industry. We have no trouble dismissing something as ‘all in their heads’, implying that real pain is wholly and incontrovertibly in the body; hence locatable and curable. As the characters in the play explain, Descartes’ theory of pain was encapsulated in an image of a naked man putting his foot in a fire. An outside stimulus (fire) causes pain to travel in a single direction up a nerve/bell-rope, to a bell which rings in the brain (response).

Undoing this mechanical model, the characters here speak of neuropathic pain, such as occurs in ‘phantom limb syndrome.’ We learn that even minor pain can make some people sensitive to further pain; that the effects of shock can be multiple, complicated, and fluid.

In the writer’s program notes, Buchanan tells us that the concerns of the play are directly linked to his having had a car accident, and that the ideas and insights in this play were the subject of a PhD. However, there is an uneasy gap between the powerful ideas that form the core of this author’s play and the character-based mode that is employed to embody the concepts. Most of the time, the script is busy attending to the boggy needs of plot, while the performers are beholden to the clunky demands of melodramatic realism—a genre of which no one on stage seems particularly convinced. While the domed screen of the planetarium enables an epic expression of pain through the metaphor of the lightning bolt and the storm, it disables the performers’ movement, restricting them to a small podium with the audience raked steeply above them.

It is rare to see theatre take the subject of pain and the body as its subject, and to be brave enough to create a narrative that can express the lonely and disabling experience of inhabiting the body in pain and attempt to illuminate the issues in a popular and accessible way.

Simon does not kill himself, and Sally and Andrew are re-united. Such rigid attention to the demands of a certain kind of story-telling undermines one of the key insights of the play: for Simon there is, was, and will be no easy way out.

I was left longing for a more poetic, elastic form; a form that could leave endings open, and that could unbind rather than bind.

A Bell In the Storm, writer David Buchanan, director Angela Chaplin, Deckchair Theatre, The Planetarium, SciTech Discovery Centre, May 12-28

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 45

© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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