Theatre Review: My Left Breast – Finishing On The Right Side, Or Graded On Her Curves

May 13, 2024




My Left Breast / Directed by Janet Baylis / Theatre On The Square, Sandton


When something like cancer turns up in someone’s life, it can – must – become all-consuming. Nothing else is needed in terms of a focal point, though the minutia and nuances of that person’s routines and relationships will of course provide colour and detail around that central thread.

As a result, depicting such a story – provided it is done well – requires very little dressing up when it is told on stage. This new production of My Left Breast offers a powerful interpretation of writer Susan Miller’s autobiographical script, which tells the story of her mastectomy and the impact of both her illness and the operation it precipitated on her life.

The script is interesting in its construction. It doesn’t build on an incident with another incident and then another as a series of episodes as is the case with most tales that aim to relate the cycles of a person’s existence. Rather, it feels like poetry, dealing with sets of feelings and responses to those emotions, making it possible to engage with the action onstage in a different way.

Shannon Esra, returning to the stage after more than a decade during which she has become a television A-lister, interprets the text in a riveting way. With nothing more than two chairs for company on a black stage, she occupies and fills the space thanks to movements and phrasing both tightly controlled – expressions, positioning, small adjustments in the way she gestures with a hand or cocks her head – and effusive bursts of movement as the script leaps from one psychological space to another and Esra tangibly moves with it, making her storytelling as effective physically as it is verbally.

It’s all a combination that may slightly bemuse an audience member who’s out for a night of escapism, but that would require a lack of research upfront on their part. For those knowing what they’re in for, the intimacy of the piece is at once warm and welcoming and slightly discomfiting – like being in a hospital room with a loved one when they are a safe and secure space, but are also sick and unable to be fully themselves as you have known them before. And like such an event, watching My Left Breast is a valuable experience, encouraging the viewing of any onlooker’s personal and unique frailties through the filter of courage, thoughtfulness, realism and shrewd comedy Miller uses in her writing.

The piece underlines the difficulties faced by women as they are expected to fulfil multiple roles, without any leeway given when circumstances beyond their control make those expectations more onerous. It’s a gentle but firm challenge to problematic social mores, and makes its point without ever feeling like a crusade. As engrossing as it is entertaining.