vessel – A Meditative Study on the Power of Language


Writer, director and BSL interpreter Sue MacLaine (creator of the award-winning Can I Start Again Please?) returns to the stage with a new show that connects the personal with the political. Review by Natasha Sutton-WIlliams

In vessel, Sue MacLaine has created a quietly hypnotic show utilising the bodies and voices of four different women from different backgrounds, races and experiences. With their voices she composes a musical quartet using words that repeat, overlap and interweave. Sometimes a single voice is heard, at other times all four voices create a polyphony of sound.

four women of different racial backgrounds sit in a row on chairs on a stage

Sue MacLaine – vessel. Image © Hugo Glendinning

MacLaine’s creative mission is simple: how does an audience take in the same words spoken from four different identities, four different ‘vessels’? She juxtaposes questions of what is personal and what is political? What is private and what is collective? What is global and what is domestic? And how the hell do we navigate all this as humans?

The four actresses sit on four individual chairs and read from large books with text that looks like a musical score. For the most part they are static, occasionally performing delicate choreographed movements, which they repeat at certain intervals. These women paint with words using repetition and lists. Via MacLaine’s honed text they discuss a range of different themes, from taking down the patriarchy and sexual consent, to over-consumption and pure and simple rage. MacLaine crafts a sentence the way a composer crafts a melody: subtly changing tone, timbre, pitch and emotion through the full spectrum of the actresses’ voices.

vessel is bookended with one simple description on the medieval practise of Anchoritism, a religious practise popular in the 13th to 15th centuries where women (and some men) would cut themselves off from society. They chose to have their last rites said to them, and then would live in a cell situated in a church so that they could exist in solitude and contemplation, and therefore be closer to God.

This diverse quartet of women embody these anchorites in a modern setting. Through placing them on stage MacLaine explores how much power women have been given over the ages through the tools of their words and voices. She argues that potentially the best way to gain power is not through sheer external force and shouting, but by retreating into one’s own quiet interior to meditate on the joys and woes of the world.

MacLaine and her company won the 2015 Total Theatre Award for ‘Innovation, Experimentation & Playing with Form’ for her show Can I Start Again Please. Influenced by her work as BSL interpreter, MacLaine specialises in creative integration of captioning in all her work, and vessel is no exception. The projected text moves, weaves, jutters, sits on top of itself, blurs and disappears, adding a depth to the words that are simultaneously being said aloud by the actresses.

Sideshot of four women wearing slightly different coloured dresses sitting in a row on stage.

Sue MacLaine – vessel. Image © Hugo Glendinning

A vibrant and striking set design is created by Ben Pacey, complemented by subtle hues of blue and green costumes by Holly Murray. These theatre-makers have created a world on stage that feels modern, yet harks back to an ancient time. From the set to the text to the actresses, everything is simple and clean on the surface, but bubbling underneath there is violence, sorrow and determination for a better world.

All this culminates into a quiet fierceness that demands you contemplate vessel’s questions and themes long after you have left the auditorium.

vessel will be performed on:
25 & 26 Oct, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Brighton
6 – 24 Nov, Battersea Arts Centre, London
3 & 4 Dec, Edge Hill Arts Centre for DaDaFest International, Merseyside