Collaborative company KILN, formerly Kindle company from Birmingham, are having a busy Fringe with three shows at Summerhall this festival. A Journey Round My Skull is the newest of these productions, a solo for performer Olivia Winteringham in which she plays a German neurosurgeon discussing the story of her patient. On stage, her consulting room is oddly toned: every surface – the desk top, the couch – is a matt turquoise and littered with tall anglepoise lamps on scarlet cables. We are cast in the role of the patient, addressed as ‘you’ throughout as she first carefully and kindly and then with increasing passion, recounts ‘our’ relationship, framed as a helpful recollection to assist a memory damaged by the illness she is treating.
The performance is highly poised. It’s disconcerting how much being spoken to as a patient encourages you to adopt that posture emotionally – it’s a very effective format that places us entirely in our doctor’s hands. And of course, she soon emerges as a highly unreliable narrator.
The tale is a compelling one of obsession, intimacy and dysfunction. Writer Nick Walker slowly tightens the screws of unease as the storytelling, barely contained, progresses whilst also peppering his script with learning about brain structure and function that belies the hand of the Wellcome Trust in the development of this project. Then the central scene breaks into a new mode. The company have found a powerfully disconcerting reconstruction of the surgery process that forms the heart of the relationship they dramatise. Biaural sound design by Iain Armstrong projected through headphones put on by every audience member brings the experience of brain surgery – undertaken under local anaesthetic – to alarmingly vivid and personal life. Now the auditory hallucinations that are symptoms of the illness, even the contact of scalpel on tissue and the voices in the protagonist’s head, are in our heads and feel completely shared. We become ‘you’, and our brain is in KILN’s hands.
A Journey Round My Skull feels like a small and private show, elegantly polished and very thoughtfully formed. Yet it’s powerfully formed leaving a lingering sense of vulnerability and violation.