Dublin Fringe Festival 2018: Assisted Solo
Mind, Heart, Body, and Soul
Whatever else it might be, and it is certainly many things, Philip Connaughton’s “Assisted Solo” is a heartfelt love poem to his mother Madeleine. Eighty-three years old and suffering from dementia, Madeleine provides a way in to a choreographic and visual interrogation of memory, forgetting, identity, and relationships. Or rather, memory, forgetting, identity, and relationships provide a way in for engaging with Madeleine. And with Connaughton. And, in turn, with all that is best of what it is that makes us human. For even when the mind goes, the heart, body, and soul remain. And ooze from every pore in this extraordinary and unforgettable performance.
From the outset, attempts to impose an order on chaos dominate. Connaughton, along with dancers Magali Caillet-Gagan and Lucia Kickham, each execute a tight individual sequence, moving forward from downstage in three individual lanes, looking at times as if executing a complex, yoga flow routine. Returning to the start, lanes are switched and the movement patterns are repeated with different dancers each time. Physical motifs, shared and returned to, emerge. Throughout, focus constantly shifts between each dancer. But the effect is less one of distraction so much as an experience of the periphery of the mind being haunted by visions and memories just on the edge of sight.
Even at its most heart wrenching, “Assisted Solo” is underscored by a deep warmth and humanity. Never more so than during a superb trio overflowing with a joy so infectious you want to get on your feet and dance. Yet it’s the solos that often impress the most. A superlative, unassisted solo by Connaughton is immediately followed by direct address to the audience as Connaughton relays the tale of when he and his mother purchased a Popeye doll in Henry Street when he was a child. Yet Connaughton is more than happy to cede the stage to his fellow dancers. If Kickham’s solo is the shortest of the three, it’s still packed with subtlety, simplicity, and raw power. Yet it is Caillet-Gagan's memorable solo which hits home the hardest. Rolling through moments of exuberance, confusion, struggle, release, all converging and winding down in a mesmerising sequence revolving around three chairs, Caillet-Gagan is simply riveting.
A superb duet with a near rag-doll, Popeye costumed Kickham, sees Connaughton share his deeply human, sexual awakening as a gay child. Even if the projection of Manchester United wallpaper will undoubtedly leave ABU’s less than impressed, the visual proves powerful, reinforcing the sense of youth with its sexual desires. And parental embarrassments, highlighting the depth of Connaughton's and Madeleine's relationship. For a man not interested in the vagina, Connaughton now has to deal with the intimacy barrier to help his mother with her physical discomfort, and look in sex shops for appropriate douches to help make her feel more comfortable. All of which is explored without varnish. Or anger. Or disgust. Indeed, through humour, heart, and honesty, “Assisted Solo” restores dignity where indignity often reigns. And in the heartfelt final sequence, ceding the final image to Madeleine, restores much of your faith in humanity.
Throughout “Assisted Solo," beautifully understated projections by Luca Truffarelli, showing Connaughton, Madeleine, and an affectionately caring Zdenek Houra, inform and enrich the performance. As does Begonia Garcia Navas’ lighting design, and Emily Ni Bhroin’s superb pyjama costumes, evoking childhood, old age, and the bed-ridden all at once. All played out in a simple, unobtrusive set by Sarah Bacon.
Life is an assisted solo, and “Assisted Solo” brims with life. Overflowing with sentiment, “Assisted Solo” never once descends into sentimentality. Indeed, visually and choreographically, "Assisted Solo” is raw, direct, unvarnished, and unapologetically vulnerable. In being so it is a thing of joy, a thing of heartache, and a thing of beauty. For with "Assisted Solo" Connaughton doesn't just wear his heart on his sleeve, he wears body and soul as well in his most personal and powerful work to date. One of the most moving and unforgettable experiences of the year.
“Assisted Solo” by Philip Connaughton, runs at Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2018 until September 15.