By Tom Pymer
Flo Petrie’s Aaron is in many senses a personal tale, and it shows. It is a story written with real feeling and has something very singular about it.
Aaron is the story of a boy with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Petrie and the cast are fully aware most people will not have heard of PWS (your reporter included), so here’s a brief run-down: PWS is a genetic condition which chiefly affects the mental state, but it also leads to decreased muscle tone, short stature, emotional liability or immaturity and insatiable appetite. Often it is the case that the brain is unable to tell when the stomach is full.
Petrie confesses openly that the play is a retelling of her own experiences, and that the family around which the entire thing revolves is strongly based on her own. She describes the production as a “therapeutic” process, which has aided her in making sense of her own personal experiences. She says she has tried to write the play showing as many different sides to everyone’s personality as possible, and this certainly proves to be true. All the characters are very human; it’s impossible not to empathise with any of them.
The play stars Mo Hafeez as the title character. On working on a character with a condition that he’d never even heard of when he started the play, he describes the process of researching PWS through documentaries as “challenging.” The most difficult bit, he says, was getting a “balance between over-sensitivity and offense”: the impossibility of knowing how far to portray the syndrome.
As a supporting cast, we have Catherine Wright as Aaron’s mother, Patrick Palmer as Aaron’s father, Iz McGrady as Aaron’s sister, Phoebe and Max Greenhalgh as Aaron’s brother, Jacob. All four consider the development of their characters to have been difficult, especially with regards to the relationship with Aaron. Petrie laughingly remarks that the family in the play are almost nothing like her own, but there is the same subtlety and, as Wright suggests “an overpowering family dynamic.” This is drawing specific attention to her character of Aaron’s mother – as a woman who people will not instinctively empathise with, but who might be seen differently after the audience see what it’s like to be a mother of a child with PWS. All four actors are refreshingly different and extraordinarily human.
The play does, of course, contain Wrong Tree’s signature characteristic: physical theatre and self-devised work. There is always a risk with physical theatre that it will end up looking contrived and unconvincing, but if the rehearsals I saw are anything to go by, the cast are well on the way in making it as slick and smooth as anything Wrong Tree have ever done. McGrady drew attention to how physical theatre allows one to “explain things which can’t be said” and Palmer added that this specific aspect is “rewarding.”
The cast and crew all agree that they are extremely interested to see how the audience will react to the play. In many senses, Aaron is the story of everyday life: it is a daily routine and indeed may be described (as McGrady did) as “stagnant.” However, this is not to deny that there is a definite story. Petrie says that she wants the audience to consider, above all, three pressing questions: what the family could have done differently, what society could have done differently and what they themselves would have done under the circumstances. It’s normal life, but it contains an abnormal element, that is, the character of Aaron, which completely changes everything about the family.
Hafeez offers the most prescient remark about the production. Aaron is a play in which there are “lots of questions, but not so many answers.” If you want something challenging which will open your eyes to a condition you probably didn’t know existed, Aaron is the play for you.
Performances of Aaron will take place on the 12th and 13th of June at 5pm in the Vane Tempest Room, Durham Students’ Union.
Trigger Warning: contains very strong language.
Tickets can be bought HERE.
Photography: Mark Norton Media