Review: wish I was… by Laura Wyatt O’Keefe at Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre

At times during certain pieces of theatre or live art there are notable moments where a word or sound seems to reverberate, not only within the walls of the auditorium, but simultaneously through the interiors of  body and mind. In wish I was…, written and performed by Laura Wyatt O’Keefe, a London-based theatre artist originally from Cork, this momentary effect is extended in to an hour-long piece. The play tells the story of Aisling, a twenty-two year old who, after a chance encounter on a night out at home that leaves her reeling, departs on a plane ‘going anywhere’ – to look for herself on the other side of the world. More than a straightforward travelogue, however, O’Keefe guides us on a journey, based on her own experience crossing from Ireland to Thailand and Australia, bringing our attention to points of difference along the way, traversing countries and borders. She threads amusing anecdotes (particularly of the Irish experience abroad) with a muddier search for identity and meaning, asking what it means to be a young woman – how this is challenged by society and whether this changes when we are uprooted in an unknown land. Are we all just navigating our own paths, and what are we bearing witness to in the process?

Waiting to enter the Council Chamber Room in Hornsey Town Hall, it felt as if we, the audience, were a hushed jury waiting to be led into a trial. The venue has been converted into a multi-purpose arts centre hosting IMPFEST – The Impermanent Festival of Contemporary Performance, and its chambers lend a sense of gravitas to the transporting mix of words and sounds that comprise wish I was… To listen to this piece is to become, like the performer’s persona Aisling, lost on a journey that begins to take its own direction. Intentionally leaving behind her luggage and possessions, but subsequently being left without her formal means identification too, in the familiar unfamiliar surroundings of her Thailand hostel, she has to trace her own lines from one place to the next.

The important element of storytelling, for O’Keefe, is what shape the narrative takes, and, in turn, how that shape allows the audience ‘to feel the story in the right form’. In wish I was… the shape of Aisling’s journey draws on the notion of the Dreaming – the passing down of knowledge and spiritual law through stories that map songlines in Aboriginal Australian oral history. Another essential part of her role as performer asks the question: ‘Why are we here, and what are we here for?’ In other words, how has this collective group of individuals, each following their own story or songlines, arrived together in this place? Through this democratic approach to theatre-making, O’Keefe applies a personable style, engendering familiarity over fear, and values the audience’s presence as a necessity to the performer’s existence; her wish is to make them feel desired, to know that they are of equal importance in the space.

Photo (c):Tabitha Goble

Photo (c): Tabitha Goble

While wish I was… is O’Keefe’s first solo production, which she began writing several years ago and produced in Ireland as part of SHOW festival in 2013, and performed at Collaborations festival in Dublin earlier this year. This is indeed a collaborative piece too, with a score by Shane O’Sullivan that intervenes at various points in the narrative. Its layered rhythms respond to the changing tempo of Aisling’s fractured account, as she traces her own songline through a landscape of sounds. Directed by Judi Chalmers, she recites her journey at an often frantic pace, embodying the language of her own associative word-play through sharp, quirky movements, as Aisling tries to relocate her sense of self. She is followed, however, by the identity and story of another woman, and the loss of a ‘you’ that proves monumental. O’Keefe delves towards the complex boundaries that are placed on female experience, something she has explored in previous work, most recently Brief last year, which questioned the drastic lengths women in Ireland have had to go to in need of an abortion. In this way her work responds to contemporary issues but remains focused on the narrative of the individual – even if that individual begins to divide in to a multitude.

(c) Joanna Lally, 2015

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About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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