I Run, Vault Festival

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by Christina Bulford

Grief is something that we must all experience at some point in our lives, but that fact alone does not in any way prepare us for it.

When a father loses his 6-year-old daughter to a long battle with Leukaemia, he isn’t prepared for the gaping emptiness that it leaves in his life. To cope, he runs, imagining in the moments his feet aren’t touching the ground that he’s soaring upwards to meet her. But he can’t outrun the past, or the memories that continue to catch up with him.

Max Keeble’s unquestionably and admirably physical performance takes place entirely on a treadmill. A specially fitted display keeps us in touch with how far into the past or present we are with “Plus one day” or “Minus 386 days”, whilst Keeble continues to run, walk or stop stock-still astride the running belt. He sweats, he pants, his physical exertion is visceral in a way that couldn’t be achieved by simply running on the spot. His perspiration hangs in the air. As he breathes deeply of the oxygen he needs to run, he remembers his daughter painfully struggling for breath with her own scarred lungs. It’s hard to tell if his running is a form of self-punishment, or a form of freedom as he pushes himself to the limits, through injury and self-doubt.

Above the treadmill hang strip florescent lights, cold, harsh and exposing. The kind of light that exposes flaws. The stripped back setting allows for rumination without distraction, clean lines, for focus. The quality of the lighting, which also features softer colours at key moments, sets the tone to thoughtful and sensitive effect. The thumping of feet on the running belt becomes the pulse to Dad’s mental state.

Danish writer Line Morkeby’s writing is filled with dualities (life and death, past and present, up and down) that are impossible to resolve but must be painfully navigated. It is at times, quite painful as well as exhausting to watch. The intensely personal monologue splices short, shattering poems between frank, open confessions, intelligently interspersing poetic and conversational styles.

This new play is part of a wider conversation that has been going on for some time – what can we do in the aftermath of a death to help ourselves, or others? When will it feel better? What does healthy healing even look like? These are questions we surely all want to ask – but we still don’t, or won’t, openly talk about it. The ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign at Vault Festival is trying to change that, partnering in the initiative with Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital. Cut the Cord Theatre Company have also paired with a children’s cancer charity. This piece is playing a wider part in the understanding of and recovery from grief, but the answers it offers are not straightforward or prescriptive.

Morkeby’s writing places a stress on the importance of movement and being physical, not only in the process of healing but throughout life. As the dad recounts Ellen, he focuses on memories of her moving, dancing, of “life bubbling inside her”. In healing, movement can be an intrinsic part, it can offer a form of release and also of control. The problem, the central character of ‘Dad’ explains, is out of his hands but not out of his legs. But the legs in themselves present a problem. They are a way of running away.

What this piece does well is opening up that difficult topic of grief with a painful but ultimately hopeful story. Thoughtful writing and an intense, visceral performance drum home  that this is a critical issue we cannot continue to run away from.

I Run runs through 17 March.

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