Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Chapter 109: Grandma's Hands - Maddie McGowan at VOLT: Women In Circus

“Grandma’s hands used to ache sometimes, and swell”

Gregory Porter, "Grandma's Hands" from the album Liquid Spirit

Photo: Paul Blakemore - Ausform
The platinum band caught half-way. “Your fingers are slim, but your knuckles are enlarged,” he declared, "It’s the early onset of arthritis.” In that instant, the jeweller resizing my wedding ring delivered both a sentence and a memory. I looked down and saw the ghost of my grandmother’s hands. Even with the onset of rheumatism, hers were more elegant, of course. Mine are small, creased with lines and marked with sunspots, the tips blistered by harp-strings, the palms calloused from trapeze. My hands tell a story of who I am, where I’m from and what I love. There’s a connection there. So it resonated to see Maddie McGowan’s sharing of her work in progress Grandma’s Hands at VOLT: Women In Circus in Bristol. Grandma’s Hands is one of those pieces that is tender, funny, and sparks of all sorts of personal recollections engaging with Maddie's exploration of the legacy of both her grandmothers through the use of aerial rope, physical movement and text. This clearly locates her performance in a theatrical context, working with the direction of Flick Ferdinando (see Women In Circus - click here). I had seen Maddie in action once before, as part of a work in progress from Mish Weaver exploring environmental damage for "Transmission" at Jacksons Lane last year. It contained a video of Maddie, telling through words and actions on aerial rope, how her house, on a cliff suffering erosion, was slipping away. We all need solid foundations, and that is where grandparents step in. We have them for such a short time, relatively speaking, yet knowing them somehow fixes us in the world. They are living histories, and herstories; a bridge to the past, a DNA signpost to the future, and a formative presence.  

Photo: Paul Blakemore - Ausform
As an aerialist, Maddie is entirely dependent on her hands to hold her up in life, and they carry incredible strength, reminding her of the "big, strong potato-peeling hands" of her paternal grandmother, Mary Teresa McGowan. We see the ease with which Maddie climbs up the rope, twisting, turning and catching her way down, with only the sound of her breath bearing testimony to how much work is actually required. As Maddie brings us into the world of her incredibly warm and wonderful, Seamus Heaney-reciting, sherry-swigging, straight-talking Irish Catholic grandmother, Maddie physical inhabits her space, slipping her arms into the sleeves of a dress, that has artfully risen from a suitcase and is suspended in the air on an invisible puppet string. Her hands feel for the potato peeler and as she talks, inhabiting her grandmother's space, she peels away her story as well as the potatoes. We meet Maddie's maternal grandmother as well, Ursula Margaret Coventry, who started life as a debutante coming out, but had no truck with that whole whirl and ended up more socialist than socialite. 

As well as her own stories, Maddie also weaves in the verbatim testimony of other grandmothers, and we see photos of them, in their prime, in the lid of the suitcase. Through the arm-chair, the record player (that Maddie sets to work) and other props, sounds of nostalgia and ghosts from the past are conjured up into the present. I never knew one of my grandmothers, but she very much came to life in my mother's anecdotes, and Maddie's gift as a storyteller reminds me of that. As Maddie explores intergenerational relationships we see in her the legacy of two remarkable women. It is so tempting to say, as I have done about my own grandmothers, that "they don't make them like that anymore". But then you see Maddie in action and you realise, actually, they do. 

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