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Review: Deadlift

Review: Deadlift

Review: Deadlift cover photo on Stagedoor
We talk about going to see a show. But what happens when there is nothing to see, only something to hear?

Twenty years ago, Battersea Arts Centre presented an entire season of work completely in the dark. It was a fascinating exercise in how the imagination works overtime when you're denied the visual. In some cases, the intensity of the experience was almost overwhelming.

When I go and sit in a theatre the show has my full attention. I’ve always loved radio plays, but I guess like many people, a great deal of my listening takes place while I’m doing something else, like cooking or cleaning or driving. I’m giving it half an ear, not my full attention. Sometimes, of course, you do stop what you are doing and just listen. I once had to pull into a layby and stop the car, such was the power of Lung Theatre’s The 56, drawing on the testimonies of those affected by the 1985 Bradford City stadium fire in which 56 people died. But those moments are rare. My life is littered with half-remembered, half-heard radio plays, like conversations never fully finished.

But the pandemic is changing how we distribute theatre, and audio drama is playing a major role in that. The latest to land is Earwig, a series of sonic plays produced by Glasgow’s Tron theatre, written by some of Scotland’s finest playwrights, which are released as a weekly free podcast. That form is crucial: the plays are short, and use sound design and music to create a wraparound intensity of experience to be listened to through headphones.

It’s certainly the case with the first in the series, Stef Smith’s The Deadlift about two women—lovely performances from Ashley Smith and Renee Williams—lifting weights in a gym. Both the writing and the production (director, Finn den Hertog) capture the mental focus of the physical effort. It is a piece that works on so many levels, not least in the way it uses internal thoughts to bare the everyday lives of two women who are both finding a mental space for themselves but also taking up space as they become stronger.

It’s unexpectedly moving, and like a lot of Smith’s writing it is both down to earth and everyday and also intriguingly elliptical. We never find out a great deal about each of these women, but we find out just enough. The glimpse we get of them as they try and “lighten the burden of being” and follow the urge to “be somebody new” by lifting upwards is exquisitely intimate. It's almost physical, courtesy of Danny Krass’s sound design, and Alon Ilsar’s percussion which makes you feel each breath and heartbeat.

It also feels sharply en pointe: when one of the women talks of “this last few months of everything” it could refer to the pandemic or her personal circumstances. It’s that ambiguity, that refusal to spell things out which has always made Smith’s work exceptional. Deadlift raises the bar high for the subsequent Earwig podcasts. If they reach it, the series will create a reverberating sonic boom.

You can listen to The Deadlift and upcoming audio plays as part of the Earwig series here.

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Lyn Gardner

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