Gentle movement and vivid storytelling make more than a few ripples in this poignant and understated play about one woman's remarkable resilience
It’s opening night of Waves in the MAC at St Anne’s Square in Belfast. The actor on stage is watching each of us as we enter the room. She is studying our movements as though we are sea creatures in an aquarium. She has a sparkle in her eye. Alice Mary Cooper, our leading lady and solo performer is intriguing us before the play begins.
The stage is bare apart from a chair and a table with an old radio, a newspaper, a mug, a cricket ball and a huge book. It is an old, dusty copy of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Something tells me that we are about to watch our very own Little Mermaid come to life.
Waves is the beautifully told tale of Elizabeth Moncello, a determined and passionate young lady who grew up in a small Australian island in the 1920s and came to be the unofficial inventor of the butterfly stroke. Most of us learned how to swim through trained instructors, or by our parents on those family holidays to Portstewart Strand. Moncello however learned how to swim by the only true, and the only real experts. The fish, the dolphins and the penguins themselves. Through new writing and vivid storytelling, Cooper elegantly demonstrates the way these sea creatures move and act and how Elizabeth, the story’s protagonist, mimics them before the world in the 200m breaststroke final at the Olympics.
The play speaks on truth, passion, dreams and women’s resilience. Tonight's writer, performer and narrator tells us how Waves started as a short story written for French magazine Jean Marie. Cooper wanted to create a work that paid tribute to pioneering female swimmers of the early 1900s. She writes, 'even though Elizabeth may not have existed, I am certain incredible people like her did, but were not recorded by history’s grand narrative'.
We're plunged into a play full of heart and raw, relatable emotion. Cooper embodies a vulnerability to Elizabeth’s character which allows us to come alongside her and empathise with every dream she imagines and every feeling she has. A natural storyteller, from page to stage. Who better to perform than the writer who knows precisely the meaning behind each word and the way they ought to be brought to life.
Cooper expresses the narrative through her body and her voice in an expressive, eloquent way. Her fluid and rhythmic motions allow those in the audience to glide with her as the story unfolds. She flutters around the stage like a butterfly, light on her feet and gracefully mirroring the words we hear.
The play is rippled with humour that can also be easily identified with. 'All she could think about was dinner. And sleep' – we hear you - as well as witty asides; 'I felt strong, and invincible – like I could save a prince', and 'Fanny hadn’t read The Little Mermaid. She didn’t get the reference.' She also ponders and provokes the big questions: 'I wondered what this big watery mass was. Where do you begin? End? Where do you go? Do you get thirsty? Like to be dry?'
She speaks about her relationship with the sea and shares with us the devastating death by drowning of Elizabeth’s younger brother. We feel as though we were there with her, experiencing the tragic moment as she describes how he, her brother 'further and further and further and further… floated out to sea.' The vocal variety of Cooper's speech is used to full effect. At times, she unnerves us by her use of pauses, holding the silence longer than we feel comfortable, but never without justification.
The direction is polished. Gill Robertson makes bold choices, in speech and in action. Every walk has purpose. Each intonation of the voice has meaning. As a one woman play there is a tendency to be stagnant and keep to one spot but Robertson makes special use of subtle choreographed movements and Cooper's agile flexibility to move across the stage seamlessly.
The music acts as a beautiful accompaniment to the piece, gentle and childlike as if from a fairytale. There are also effective touches in the production, including one moment when we're made to feel the warmth of the sun on the actor's face as a technician lights it up with a redish hue.
Cooper calls this work Waves and she has certainly made them with her first performance in Northern Ireland, beckoning us in by her presence and every spoken word. It's 50 minutes of delicate yet daring and delightful theatre by an artist by who will surely wash up on our shores again.