02 May 2013

Early introduction to Planet Aphasia

Ask me what is the most dazzling theatre experience I have ever had and I will answer without a moment's hesitation that it was the 1993 premiere production of L'homme qui... at the fabulously renovated old Paris theatre, Theatre des Bouffes du Nord.

This stunning drama, inspired by Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, was the work of British director Peter Brook and his renowned troupe of actors, dancers and musicians known as the International Centre for Theatre Research. Brook's multinational company had had a peripatetic existence until the troupe took up residence at this Paris theatre, built in 1876 and renovated in 1974 under the direction of Brook and his partner Micheline Rozan. The theatre, and the unusual way in which it was brought back to life in a way that maintained its aura as a living relic, is worth a story of its own. The Theatre des Bouffes du Nord featured prominently as a location for the classic French thriller, Diva. And if you read French, have a look at the theatre's official website for an overview of its amazing history and restoration.

We arrived early at the theatre that night, as we weren't sure how difficult it would be to find. (We'd been told it was behind the Gare du Nord, one of Paris's larger railway stations.) And we also knew that Brook's policy did not allow numbered or reserved seats. Tickets were all one price; you sat wherever you wanted, or could. It was necessary to arrive early to get a good seat. And so we had at least 15 minutes in which to sit and marvel at the incredible ambiance created by a restoration that had retained as much as possible of the fabric of more than one hundred years of use. Peeling paint on the stage's walls and overhead a giant domed grill of rusted metal contrasted sharply with crisp new seating that appeared as if suspended within the original and untouched perimeter walls.

The play itself, of course, was performed mainly in French. I say 'mainly' because a good deal of what some of Sacks' patients spoke was gibberish, in keeping with their various brain disorders. Allen doesn't speak or understand French. He knew about Sacks' work, as did I, though I don't know if either of us had yet read the book which inspired the production. But not only did Allen feel he understood most of what was going on, we both felt we could almost 'hear' what the afflicted patients were trying to say in their nominally unintelligible ramblings. All of this was due to the magnificence of the acting – there's just no other word that describes it better than 'magnificent'.

At the play's conclusion, the audience sat silent and stunned for what seemed like ages. Then applause and foot-stamping erupted (the built-up seating had a wooden floor, I think). And when the tumult finally died down, many people, like us, remained rooted to their seats. All around I could hear intense conversations in French start up about the play and its contents. It was an electrifying experience – just what good theatre should be, but so rarely is.

Why do I so often now think back to that magical Paris experience? I suppose it's because in some ways I feel I'm now living inside a Sacksian world. How strange it is that the single most inspiring theatrical experience I have ever had should so eerily have prefigured where our lives were destined to end up 20 years later – Allen struggling, mainly in vain, to make himself understood. And his shrinking brain in ever-increasing revolt against his personality and all that he once was, knew and accomplished.

It seems only appropriate to end with a statement about aphasia taken from an April 2 post on Oliver Sacks' blog:
What is aphasia?
Imagine knowing what you want to say, but your brain refuses to let you utter even the simplest word. Or imagine listening to your friends and family and having no idea what their words mean. Sometimes the ability to read or write is affected too.
That, unfortunately, is the world Allen now inhabits – a place a fellow sufferer has called "Planet Aphasia".


Anonymous said...

If this were Facebook, I would tick the "Like" thumbs up...!

Chartreuse said...

Thanks for visiting, Anonymous.

The Blog Fodder said...

I need to add that book to my reading list. I remember when it was first published thinking I should read it.
I am glad your Allen has you to love and look after him. It must be hell inside his world.

Chartreuse said...

AH, you might also enjoy a later book of Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. And he has an interesting chapter in the book that was a NY Times bestseller: The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge.

Snowbrush said...

Years ago, I read the book and was most impressed. I don't know that a play in French would have done the same for the same for me though.

About me

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.