Review: Unknown

Hannah O’Dowd’s T3 play Unknown featured some of the strongest student talent that I’ve come across at Exeter.

In what was undoubtedly the most moving piece of university theatre I’ve seen, this play tells the true story of a plane accident and its consequences on Hannah, the writer and protagonist. Unknown tackles the complex theme of trauma with sensitivity and maturity on the writer’s part, showing the evolution of her psychological and physical wellbeing in the two years since the incident. While autobiographical, the play has a broader outlook, preventing it from feeling overly personal. O’Dowd’s aim has been to create a meaningful piece of work that gives voice to the victims and survivors of brain injury, memory loss and trauma, as well as what at times feels like a more personal attempt at catharsis. It is gentle and at times wry, while humour and light-heartedness also give the play a fresh outlook and reveal O’Dowd’s writing skill, as well as her self-awareness and perspective.

At various intervals, O’Dowd intermittently interrupts the play’s fictionalised account of the real-life events to speak to the audience, discussing the technicalities of her injuries, rehabilitation, trauma and brain damage, and reminding the audience of the play’s factual basis, before the piece resumes its theatrical representation of the events. Unknown’s fusion of fact and fiction is thus beautifully executed, drawing audiences into the performance before stepping back to reiterate the piece’s nature as a factual, autobiographical piece. It combines its wider statements on overcoming obstacles and appreciating youth, life and friendships, with its personal, redemptive feel. It was perfectly balanced, performative enough to avoid solipsism, with the spoken interludes by Hannah providing relief from the deeply moving drama.

The intimate set in Thornlea gave the play an immediacy and tension that beautifully enhanced the plot. The actors made use of the small stage to optimal effect, lining it with chairs to represent a hospital waiting room as well as to provide props, and hanging photographs around the stage to give it the feel of a young woman’s bedroom, or in this case, the inner workings of her mind and memories. The use of video footage also made the play feel autobiographical, giving it a documentary-like factuality and relevance, reminiscent of the fact that the devastating events at hand were in fact widely broadcasted on the news and on television. The simplicity of the stage, with these minimal features, allowed the acting, symbolism and script to work optimally, visuals and props never detracting from the impressive efforts of the cast.

The music, meanwhile, featuring original songs by singer-songwriter Leah Tess, was perfectly suited to the movements of the plot. Tess’ folky storytelling, in particular the song ‘Oblivion’, captured and enhanced the representation of the complexities of Hannah’s friendships after her brain injury. ‘Lucky One’ added new emotional dynamics and considered the topics of self-worth and emotional recovery, and whether we ought always to feel grateful for our circumstances.

The use of physical theatre was the play’s most unique, powerful plot device. It was used effectively to communicate suffering, emotion, pain, rehabilitation, trauma and relationships throughout the play, and served to convey matters inexpressible in words. While the choreography and movements of the characters demonstrated a tremendous range of emotions, from grief to romantic attraction, it also symbolically depicted the protagonist learning to walk and her physical rehabilitation after the incident. The physical, dance-inspired aspects of the performance reiterated the theme of trauma that recurs in the play and enhanced the highly original play’s emotional resonance. It was astonishing to see the group of actors communicate through the complex choreography and express the emotions and tensions of the play using body language and dance in this way. The ability, versatility and chemistry of the entire cast was extremely impressive.

Hannah O’Dowd is set to take Unknown to the Edinburgh Fringe. Be sure to try and catch what was a truly exceptional, eye-opening piece of theatre. You can also donate to the play’s crowd funder and to Headway, the charity which has supported O’Dowd throughout her recovery.

Katie Rivers

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