It doesn’t seem quite right to call UNKNOWN a ‘play’, but as a performance, it’s packed with drama. The show presents a woman’s recovery from a plane crash, and stages her friends and family’s experiences in the process. As someone who’s terrified of flying, I found the show deeply arresting: apparently it’s not just crashes we should fear, but months and years of physical and psychological turbulence.
blurring the line between performance and documentary
UNKNOWN depicts the unknowable, exploring life and death issues and blurring the line between performance and documentary. It was developed by, and stars, the survivor, Hannah Maeve O’Dowd, with the cast fictionalising her relations. The set was hung with photos and letters from O’Dowd’s life, along with the tag from her hospital bracelet. The stufffrom her life tells this story, and real life wrote it as much as she did, through her dramatization, to footage from her real life, to the marks on her forehead from the halo-clamp head brace that aligned her vertebrae in hospital. O’Dowd and her cast retrace her steps back to Exeter, through drama, dance, and narrative explanation.
The dance sections are generally breathtaking, as O’Dowd and Ryan Bonner, who plays her dad, express re-learning to walk with their bodies. The scene becomes particularly heartwarming in its lifts and turns, and as Bonner balances O’Dowd’s feet on his.
the staging and dialogue was deeply touching at times
It’s hard to criticise dialogue written and performed by someone who relearned to read, write, walk, and talk at 21, and the staging and dialogue was deeply touching at times. Finn Thornton, who played O’Dowd’s friend ‘Will’, depicted a bittersweet blend of love and loss. When he reminisced as Will about a photo of him and Hannah on the beach on holiday, the moment, and many eyes in the room, glittered with poignance.
this show is deep, textured, and emotional to the core
The joke about veganism non-withstanding, this show is deep, textured, and emotional to the core. O’Dowd describes her struggle to find her old life, and the project of ‘filling in the gaps’. These ‘gaps’ tear into raw emotional tension. The shows power is in gaps, in the chokes and the coughs and the pauses: in Luke Thomas Olivers’ masterful voice-cracks, in Finn Thornton’s racked and laboured breathing, and in Izzy Harrison’s beautiful silences. All the actors had bare feet, so their soles slapped the stage-floor as they scattered and dashed in shock or panic. The cast made skilful use of five chairs, which became hospital waiting rooms or desolated lounges. Throughout the performance, the chairs creaked with pressure as bodies contorted in anxiety and dejection.
Such action was overlaid not only with footage, drama, and dramatic readings, but also with expressive acoustic guitar, played live from the side of the stage. The music, although slightly loud, developed the themes of trauma and hope. Even when the guitarist accidentally knocked over her bottle of water, it gave a serendipitously expressive knock that punctuated the dialogue.
UNKNOWN is gripping, cathartic, and genre-bendingly real
Ultimately, UNKNOWN is gripping, cathartic, and genre-bendingly real. It does the improbable: telling an interesting story about a gap year. In the light of the recent Boeing 737 max tragedies, it explores the human side to tragedy, when all we often get are numbers, thoughts, and prayer. When describing her injuries, O’Dowd remarks ‘what’s harder to explain is the stuff that you guys can’t see’. This performance stages that struggle for expression and understanding of the unknown. O’Dowd shows us a life, and it’s spell-binding.bookmark me