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Edinburgh review: The Shape of the Pain (Summerhall)

Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe explore one woman's unusual condition where pain is non-stop

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Rachel Bagshaw in The Shape of the Pain

What does pain actually feel like? Can you hear it? Can you see it? In her piece created with Chris Thorpe for China Plate, theatremaker Rachel Bagshaw explores the physical embodiment of pain.

It stems from the story of an unnamed woman who suffers from a neurological condition which makes her experience pain all the time. There's no cause: sometimes it can stem from being a bit too close to someone, sometimes it is triggered by brushing against a door frame. But whether or not the cause is clear, the pain is definitely there.

Her condition is to do with a misfiring of neurons, of brain signals, of messages running the wrong way up and down her nervous system. The woman's senses are heightened to the extreme: everything around her prompts a screeching, awful and vicious reaction. It's hard to understand how she copes.

Her experience of pain is so intense that she can be amazingly specific when she describes it. She can identify its colour, if it's a rectangle or a triangle, its sound. And to demonstrate this onstage, Bagshaw plays with the show's form – there's a complex and subtle soundscape and a series of visual images that are projected onto grey boards at the back of the stage. As she talks us through a love story (of course there's a love story, we're in Edinburgh) words, images and shapes swirl all around us as if we might actually be within the pain.

In the story of this woman and the man she falls in love with, the show brings this experience back to the everyday. The Shape of the Pain opens a window on how it is possible to exist with this sort of condition, let alone have a relationship. Sex is a fraught experience - it helps to have someone who can distinguish between the cry of an orgasm and the cry of someone who needs you to get off their leg. When she finds someone who understands, there is something resembling peace for her.

But for all its fascinating demonstration of how this person deals with pain and what pain actually is, for me, the piece became too focused on the love story. It's a pity; I'm not sure it was needed to make this subject digestible for an audience. It is enthralling enough without it.

The Shape of the Pain runs at Summerhall until 26 August.

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