We are here trying to find a translation. Are you listening? Do you understand? How are you doing? Are you assimilating, processing, interpreting? Perhaps you’re looking, reading the body language of the two women sitting side-by-side, joined at the hip by the voluptuous folds of dresses that billow over their chairs and on to the floor. One is light skinned, one is dark skinned. One has short hair, one has long hair. Is this significant, important? What will this be about? What stories are they already telling, sitting there? There is a great concertina of cream-coloured pages arranged across their laps, moving along like an archaic ticker tape. Joined-up writing. Are you listening to the woman who is speaking, or watching the woman who is signing? Or both at once? Sometimes they don’t speak, don’t sign, just sit silent and upright, looking out at us, returning our gaze. If you don’t know what to say and when to say it, be quiet. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. That’s a quote from Wittgenstein, who features heavily here. I hope I’ve spelt his name right. Spelled.
Sue MacLaine’s Can I Start Again Please is a gorgeous piece of theatre, using a mesmerising mix of verbal, visual and physical languages to tell its story. It is performed by Sue MacLaine and Nadia Nadarajah, with a beautiful design by Lucy Bradridge, and choreographer Jonathan Burrows as outside eye. What’s being investigated here is the power and failings of language – languages of all sorts – to tell truths that want to hide. In particular, a story of childhood sexual abuse. Words can hide as much as they reveal. Is it a rabbit or a duck? Is it a lamp or her dad, next to her in the bedroom? The harsh words burst out, subverting the calm tones of the storyteller. It is heartbreaking. This is the teddy bear in the wreckage.
Often, the two performers play out the duality of the neutral, factual retelling of horrors, and the inner turmoil these words provoke. Sue speaks slowly and carefully, articulates, pronounces, declaims. Nadia gesticulates wildly, shakes her head, flings her arms out in a mixture of anger and defence. In one particularly moving moment, deaf actor Nadia speaks, her articulation distorting the vile words voiced, these words repeated very quietly by Sue, who is now the one using British Sign Language as her voice. ‘You know you’re a little whore, don’t you?’ Sit quiet, don’t tell or you die, believes the child. He who is silent is assumed to consent, says the adult who has chosen to speak. Speak up. Speak out. Let the use of words teach us their meaning. That’s Wittgenstein again.
How are you getting on? Are we singing off the same hymn sheet? Singing, signing. Are we colluding, occluding, concluding? You have the right to remain silent. Sue MacLaine has chosen to waive that right. To wave. That’s right. Not waving but drowning (past). Not drowning but waving (present). Sending a sign, a signal, a signifier. A message in a bottle from the future to her past self. Speak up! Bravo! A brave, bold, beautiful show.
Can I Start Again Please is a Sick! Festival commission. It plays at Summerhall every day in August except Mondays, 14.50