'It felt like a conversation'

Isobel Todd sees ‘The Art of Attachment’ at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

‘People say more in their art than in reports and case conferences,’ declares Lemn Sissay towards the start of this extraordinary evening. Sissay is an award-winning wordsmith whose blistering poems and plays have explored his sufferings as a child in the care system of the Seventies and Eighties. Last year, in a radical testing of the connection between theatre and therapy, he staged a public reading of his own psychological assessment at London’s Royal Court theatre. He couldn’t bear to read it himself, and wanted a live audience there with him when he heard the report for the first time.

So Sissay knows all about art as expression, art as empowerment and protest, and art as containment. But he has, he says, discovered it all afresh through The Art Of Attachment. This unique project has seen the Brighton Oasis Project, a substance misuse service, collaborate with three different artists. Using Attachment Theory as their starting point, Sissay, feminist choreographer Charlotte Vincent and filmmaker Becky Edmunds spent 18 months working with women and children at the service, exploring and giving representation to their often deeply traumatic life experiences. These are women whose stories have been subsumed in case reports or eclipsed by social stigma. This one-off public performance, sensitively accommodated by the theatre with a dry bar and a pop-up creche, is by no means the sum total of the project. But it certainly involves the sell-out audience in a transformative act of witnessing.

Sissay’s reading interweaves his own poems – each one an act of survival heaving with anger and hope – with writing produced in his workshops at Brighton Oasis Project. ‘You’re the bloody baseball bat to the killer clown,’ goes the opening of a poem by one eight-year-old boy, who was asked by Sissay to describe somebody he loved. Sissay reads the first line several times over, relishing its word power, its resilience. ‘The institution is in itself an attachment disorder’, he declares in the subsequent Q&A, recalling how, between the ages of 12 and 18, he was given multiple diagnostic labels – but never a hug.

The piece of dance-theatre feels like an enactment of Sissay’s earlier insight about how much more we can communicate of trauma through art. The stage is set for a report or a case conference: a long table, chairs, microphones, and piles of notes that are routinely and perfunctorily shuffled. Joined by dancers Antonia Grove and Robert Clark, the four women from Brighton Oasis Project are at first merely presented to us: their ‘histories’ itemised with detached thoroughness, their ‘problems’ glossed like boxes on a tick sheet. Every substance listed puts another brick in the wall.

But it is clear from the outset that an alternative version of these stories is going to be told – one that is agonisingly visceral, and often beyond words. In the opening moments, a woman gives birth to a baby. They are connected by an umbilical rope, and we watch it uncoil and tauten across the stage as the baby is slowly removed from its mother. Suddenly the rope is cut, and she curls into a foetal position around its loose end.

Attachment Theory doesn’t just apply, here, to the nurturing bond between mother and child. The piece is also about the connecting red ribbon of trauma, the cruel predicament facing women who, through motherhood, find themselves re-confronted with the emotional deficits in their own childhoods. It is a piece about what happens when love is absent, or lost, or all mixed up with pain; or when love just isn’t enough. Through narrative and movement, the women tell stories of sexual, physical and mental abuse, and above all of loss. Sometimes the onstage action is overlaid with recorded dialogue. It is chopped up roughly, suggesting the way trauma assaults our sense of continuity and coherence.

But this is also a piece about love as an enduring source of hope. Taking back the microphones, seizing control of their stories, the four women counter the case notes by listing ‘positives’ about themselves. Again and again, they cite the desire to be a good mother, and the desire to be loved. Perhaps the fact they have managed to stick with this 18 month project, form a company, allow each other to inhabit their stories, is itself proof that attachment patterns can change. Performance, after all, is a supreme act of trust.

‘I still don’t feel like a performer,’ says one woman, during the post-show Q&A. ‘If I hadn’t of had Charlotte’s help for eight months, I wouldn’t have been on the stage. I wasn’t performing, I wanted to communicate something. It felt like a conversation.’ ‘That,’ responds Sissay, chipping in from the seat he has now taken up in the audience, ‘is the best description of art I know’.

-       Reviewed by Isobel Todd, Psychodynamic Counsellor and arts journalist based in Brighton

-       Becky Edmunds' film, So Heartbroken, So Long, can be viewed on her vimeo channel at https://vimeo.com/289455758

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