Ménage à Trois explores Award-winning performer Claire Cunningham's 20-year relationship with her crutches. Paul Cockburn saw the performance at the Tramway, Glasgow on 25 August
Right from the start, it’s clear that Ménage à Trois is not going to be a traditional dance performance. As the audience enters the dim main space at the Tramway in Glasgow, their attention is taking by the projections on the thin gauze curtains at the front and towards the back of the stage; dancing lines, sparks (of a fire?), falling and rising letters — all accompanied by a somewhat unsettling soundscape. Visually compulsive, it engenders a real sense of immersive 3D.
The use of these projected layers continues — from pseudo-video game footage (representing Claire Cunningham’s dislike of romance) to the clearly integral text of a fractured monologue which punctuates the opening and conclusion of Ménage à Trois: “I forget I was made to touch…” a voice says at one point, and the words float and fade above her. Yes, this is a multi-sensory production, but not just for the sake of it — this is an integral alliance of the languages of the written word and physical movement.
The particular Ménage à Trois at the heart of this work is between Cunningham and her two “partners for life”, her crutches. Playfully, the focus of this work is on the extent she wonders if her relationship with them, by mirroring a relationship with another person, actually gets in the way of contact with other people and so has contributed to her 'perpetual singlehood'.
So, alone and despondent, we see Cunningham — a strong, graceful performer — make her 'perfect boyfriend', someone with whom she can 'click', from a pile of crutches. Then, as in the best fairytales, the crutches-made boyfriend come alive, performed with equal elegance by Candoco dancer Christopher Owen.
What follows is a joyful exploration of early romance and relationships, albeit defined by white lines against the dark, and a growing sense that Cunningham doesn’t believe she has a right to such a relationship. At one point she turns up for a proper 'date' — all the accoutrements of a dinner wittily represented by pieces of crutches — in a dress which visually represents how she believes those crutches keep the world at a distance.
This is an absorbing, emotive exploration of personal self-identity and disability, a truly sensory experience thanks to the innovative and inventive use of a minimal set, props (largely crutches!), the aforementioned layers of animation and a musical soundscape created by Matthias Herrmann that supports and enhances the emotional points of the piece.
The result is a work that is by no means an easy ride; the audience is expected to be attentive, but this is nevertheless a remarkably accessible production that creates a deeply meaningful, cohesive world from the simplest of elements. The contribution of co-director (and video designer) Gail Sneddon should not be underestimated.
There’s a real sense that all those involved with this project, but most particularly Cunningham herself, are at the top of their game, and that the result is so much more than the sum of its parts. An unforgettable experience.
As part of the Unlimited Festival, Claire Cunningham presents Ménage à Trois in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre on 8 September at 8pm