Theatre Review: The Inconvenience Of Wings

July 1, 2017



The Inconvenience Of Wings / Directed by Lara Foot / Mannie Manim, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


This play starts with a stage filled with three broken people and ends, a devastating hour-and-a-half later, with those people, still broken, having shattered your heart. It’s a brutal, truthful, beautiful, devastating examination of bipolar disorder and the effect it has on a marriage and long-standing friendships between the couple involved and an academic who is also a psychologist and counsellor.

It’s structured using reverse chronology, making the first scene, in which Paul (Andrew Buckland), appears to be the major focus of the mental illness aspect of the piece, cleverly misleading. It also introduces a level of eviscerating vulnerability that is somehow – it requires enormous commitment from the actors – maintained throughout the play. There’s a good deal of nudity in the play, but the initial novelty is short-lived as it becomes clear that this is just part of performances that lay every part of Paul and Sara (Jennifer Steyn) open to close audience scrutiny.

How close you’re willing to look at everything that unfolds depends on how brave you’re feeling. Paul and Sara’s relationship veers between exquisite tenderness and violent belligerence as Sara begins a manic episode or drops off an emotional cliff into deep depression. Paul loves her so much that he’s willing to hang on through thick and thin as she rides this rollercoaster, though he’s often confused, scared and angry as her behaviour hurts him personally or puts other parties at risk.

James (Mncedisi Shabangu) is a bachelor – there is mention of him “bringing his wife to join him”, but that event never transpires – who Paul and Sara first encounter in his capacity as a psychologist and later appreciate for his intellect, solidity and loyalty. He initially seems to exist at a disconnected distance from his troubled friends, but it becomes clear as the audience gets to know him as an individual over the course of the several decades that the story covers that he is wrestling his own demons (loneliness note least among them). And this is in spite of his being a very successful black academic during apartheid, when he managed to impressively overcome a number of significant obstacles – a thread that adds a thought-provoking layer to proceedings.

Over the course of the play, Paul is fighting to stay on one curve, in part because he believes Sara wants him too. For her part, Sara is always trying to get off a curve – one that intersects with but is not always connected to her husband’s, even though she can sometimes see that Paul might offer her some sort of redemption. That these paths diverge without the couple discussing or sometimes even being aware of their doing so is just one part of the profound tragedy of their situation, and the ending underlines this terrible sadness, revealing the foundations of what – by then – the audience understands more profoundly.

Steyn’s performance is astonishing. There’s an uncharitable cliché in Hollywood that says if an actor wants to win an award, they should choose a damaged character to play; someone with an illness or disability. That’s an incredibly cynical view, and one that performances like this supersede. Steyn is intense and precise, giving Sara all the quirks and mannerisms of someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, but that’s, relatively speaking, the easy part. She also convincingly communicates the acute bewilderment, anger and isolation such a person must feel – and it’s heartbreaking.

Buckland is an expert foil, his character hard when hers is soft and vice versa, and capable of giving just as much depth to his healthy but hurt husband as Steyn does to her brittle, despairing wife. The interaction between all three actors is effortless and authentic, thanks to a crisp, scrupulous script, as important a contribution from Lara Foot as her superb direction.

This is an incredible piece of work, affecting and disturbing, funny and shatteringly sad. See it.