We could all do with going for more walks outside. This isn’t the only takeaway from Beth Bowden’s astonishing play, Right of Way, but one of many ideas investigated in striking and stunningly visual detail in such a short space of time. So broad but interconnected is the subject matter that it completely consumes the space it inhabits and the attention of audience members fortunate enough to witness it.
There may at first be a temptation to, unfairly, dismiss this production as a flowery musing on the ocean, what with all the easy metaphors and symbolism that particular topic can bring. Initially abstract with lyrical lines projected on a screen as Bowden plays with water, some might be inclined – as I was – to make the aforementioned assumption. The reality is far more intricate and intelligent.
At its heart, we learn Bowden’s mother has become chronically ill, and the coastal walks and beach adventures which populated her childhood are no longer physically possible. This fact soon transcends the primary emotion of grief, though, and serves as a springboard to explore the rage of government inaction on COVID in terms of disabled people, for example. With the floor of the stage her canvas, she chalks up the total number of deaths from coronavirus thus far, and reels off a string of damning statistics while sitting among us, emphasising the human element of this pandemic and a virus which has impacted us all. So enormous does the play and its subject matter feel that it does, quite literally, jump off the stage.
Another fine example of this – but also one of the smartest parts of the play – is the use of bags of salt to illustrate the all-encompassing nature of chronic pain. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fact that those with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (or POTS) may require a higher salt intake, but that feels coincidental here (both Bowden and her mother’s exact conditions aren’t mentioned). What is certainly deliberate and so brilliantly beautiful is how salt links up to everything else in the play across its four chapters. Salt connects to water, which connects to bodies, then to illness, to Bowden’s mother, to walks and then back to nature. The storytelling comes full-circle in the most imaginative fashion.
But at the same time, so many elements of this production are experimental and subversive in a way which is novel and refreshing. It doesn’t follow a standard linear narrative (hell, there’s a peppermint sweet break halfway through; it’s playfully poetic in flipping words on their head; and features gorgeous, crisp cinematics in its video design – an organic, authentic and imperfect style which would put Ivo van Hove’s glossy production value to shame.
I’m being a tad hyperbolic, but I’d argue Right of Way warrants it. A play which feels so big in nature (pun not intended) deserves very big praise indeed.
Right of Way is now playing at VAULT Festival until 26 February.
Production Images: Beth Bowden/VAULT Festival.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Right of Way’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.