Review: Groundbreaking sound art confronts experience of brain trauma

Festival critic Michelle Dee comes to terms with Shannon Yee’s Reassembled, Slightly Askew.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew
Reassembled, Slightly Askew. Photograph by Jerome Whittingham @photomoments

“Shannon. Shannon. Can you hear me?”

Many people recoil in horror when you begin to describe it. Before seeing Reassembled, Slightly Askew, I’d been carrying a phrase around in my head, something like, “people going to see Reassembled need their head testing.” I now know, having experienced the work, how unfunny and rather crass it would have been to open with that line as I had intended.

Any show where you are instructed to fill out an admissions form, then told to remove coats and shoes by a nurse is sure to set the mind on edge.

After having a brief informal getting to know you, among ourselves, in the waiting room, we six were directed to a clinical looking room with six hospital beds inside. An array of wires lead to a central console, I’m briefly reminded of ECT, medical horrors – I hate them – it’s the not being in control, having things done to you idea; really freaks me out. Each metal-framed bed is covered in clean white linen and we are invited to choose one, then to lie down and get comfortable.

Elaine, the Nurse, is explaining the procedure, detailing what is to happen, how at any point we may raise a hand if it gets too much, for whatever reason, and be guided out of the space.

I watched as the group – all women as it happens – picked beds, moved pillows and settled down. One lady two beds from me had chosen to get under the covers. I did not, with a certain amount of trepidation and alarm bells in my head I did lie down, resting my hands on my stomach, watching the rise and fall of my breathing.

Elaine placed sleep masks over our eyes blocking out the light, then gently raising the head with all the bedside manner and care expected of a nurse, placed the headphones over our ears. I wait. I hear the sounds of traffic. I’m not sure whether it is the sluggish school run out on Prospect Street or some place else.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew is an immersive audio work that uses binaural sound – part theatre, part installation. Taking part has been likened to lucid dreaming or projection. Binaural sound is a concept that allows artists and architects to think about sound in new and innovative ways. Binaural sound isn’t stereo sound like in a multiplex, it might be closer to surround sound, but even that doesn’t really adequately explain what the listener feels. The sounds are not inside your ear, they seem to exist in a strange disorienting space, somewhere around your head. Not inside your head, but outside.

In Reassembled you are taken inside a brain injury patient’s head, you exist inside their head, you experience what they experience in a visceral, physical and often disturbing way. It is a pioneering piece of work, combining theatre, sound art, choreography and medical staff. During the research for the show Shannon and her creative team worked alongside neurology staff, including her own neurosurgeon who operated on her when she was critically ill.

Everyone experiences and responds to Reassembled, Slightly Askew differently, some experience a falling sensation, as I did, feelings of fear, hyper awareness of breathing and heartbeat. Your experience is personal to you, you are not one part of an audience, it is not a collective experience in the way we understand them in theatre. What you bring with you, your feelings, knowledge and prior experience of being in a hospital setting all effect your participation. The reasons for signing up to the show are as varied as the responses, just in our group of six there was lady whose friend had a brain injury, a lady who had experienced some of the trauma of a brain injury and another who was a medical science writer and looking at Reassembled from a patient-led viewpoint.

Not everyone can get through the experience; in our group six went in but at the end there were just five – one lady having found it all too much and had to be taken out. She was fine, there were people on hand to make sure of that.

Claire Lacey, the author of Twin Tongues (Invisible Publishing), provided me with an academic perspective on this unique piece of work.

Every brain, and every brain injury, is unique, which makes it a difficult experience to talk about or represent artistically. It’s an alienating, uncertain experience, one that by it’s very nature, makes communicating exceedingly difficult. The beauty of this theatre piece is that it creates a bodily experience of being the patient, and then emulates the anxiety and dislocation of the person with brain injury. So many of these symptoms (and the question of “is this a symptom, or have I always been this way”) are not easily quantifiable by medicine and can be invisible to the outsider. But Reassembled Slightly Askew puts the audience into the theatre of the hospital and projects the mental chatter of a recovering brain directly to each individual audience member, capturing both the sensory turmoil and isolation of brain injury. It’s a tremendous achievement.

I have purposefully left a big gap where Reassembled, Slightly Askew takes place. My own response to it surprised me. As I blinked in the light at the end, I was totally disoriented. I had no wish to leave the comfort and strange security of the bed. I had experienced strange sensations whilst I was under, and moments that were almost overwhelming to the point of terror. It had got inside my head. I did need a few moments to readjust, to process.

Having attended a writing workshop a day later with Shannon Sickels (Yee), I was taken with the way she described the creative process of writing, any writing. That writing first takes place in the creative messy part of the brain, then later it is worked on by the critical, editing part of the brain. A number of exercises in which she related to her process of creating Reassembled gave the workshop participants a new set of tools, with which they will be able to drill down, and reveal the substance of their writing. Having met with Shannon, and seen how well she looks five years after her brain trauma, I can feel the underlying message of hope that lies at the heart of the ground-breaking and disturbing Reassembled, Slightly Askew.

www.reassembled.co.uk

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