The Unicorn in Captivity – The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Angelika May

Director: Mayra Stergiou

Angelika May’s debut play, The Unicorn in Captivity, has a certain raw energy that comes from lived experience – her own of chronic vertigo and vestibular migraines and a close friend’s of epilepsy. Both young women have endured the pain of being misunderstood and misdiagnosed.

But epilepsy, which the play focuses on, is difficult to represent on stage. We are taught the differences between ‘focal seizures’ or ‘auras’ in which the sufferer is conscious of strange feelings that are hard to describe, and ‘tonic-clonic’ seizures or full-blown fits. There are also ‘absences’, particularly common in childhood. The difficulty of dramatizing these different kinds of epilepsy is that ‘absences’ are not inherently dramatic – May is required to sit and stare.

Director Mayra Stergiou, however, is to be commended for avoiding sensational representation of ‘tonic-clonic’ fits on stage. Relatively basic lighting changes and the occasional bursts of static interference have to do duty here. Then there is the additional difficulty that someone undergoing a seizure will not be conscious of what is happening to them. This inevitably leads to difficulties for the protagonist F, played by May herself, in conveying either to a doctor or to the audience what it is that has happened to her. The best she can come up with is being scared going on a ride at Thorpe Park.

As writer, the solution May finds is to opt for an overly crude dramatic framework so that F’s experiences can be presented to the audience. F, a final-year Art student, has started a relationship with M (Charlie Collinson), an older, self-obsessed art graduate who has had success with an earlier photographic project documenting his mother’s cancer treatment. His mother has now died and he anxiously searches for a new project. Learning of the tests F is undergoing for epilepsy, he becomes a sinister, vampiric figure, greedily and remorselessly filming her. This switch to cold, bullying behaviour is too sudden and too extreme to convince: it’s too obviously a didactic device to tell a story of what can go wrong if epileptic symptoms are not recognised or properly treated.

The various scenes of male doctors and lecturers woodenly proclaim the dominance of old-fashioned, patriarchal thinking and a potted history of the treatment of epilepsy fails to differentiate between the nineteenth and twenty-first-century understanding of the condition.

May’s play, understandable for new writing, tries to pack in too many issues. As well as the history of epilepsy, it touches on grief and mourning and theories about art and photography, as well as introducing us to the medical scandal of the drug sodium valproate. In doing so, F’s character and the credibility of her relationship with M remain undeveloped.

Runs until 13 July 2024

overly didactic

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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