On Friday night at Declaration, women's collective TYCI presented a showcase of theatre, spoken word and music to explore Article 3: Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security. Shona McCombes reviews the event, which featured performances by Jenny Knotts, Caitlin Skinner, Sara Shaarawi, Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir, Rose Ruane and Chrissy Barnacle. 

‘The right to life, liberty and personal security’ sounds like a simple proposition, perhaps the simplest and most obvious of all the Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles. But the various voices that came together for TYCI’s Declaration Takeover event share an understanding that each of those terms is more complex and eluding than they might first appear. Filtered through the lens of gender and shaped by the experience of mental ill-health, the struggle to sustain freedom, safety and wellbeing is not only against external forces but deeply embedded in our internal and intimate lives.

TYCI describe themselves very simply as ‘a collective run by women’, and at Declaration they did what they do best, carving out spaces and building platforms for women’s creative work to be witnessed and their voices to be heard. The event opened with a short film composed of excerpts from the Illuminations series, in which women talk frankly and directly about their experiences of mental illness. The film’s format rests on a common principle of both feminist and mental health activism: the importance of speech, the value of telling personal stories and expressing experience. But the performances that followed addressed, in various ways, the difficulties and sometimes impossibilities of this principle. The voices onstage were neither frank nor direct, but evasive and uncertain, exploring the ways in which speech is curtailed and constrained, and always full of gaps.

Sometimes the gaps are where there is most meaning to be found. The aural theatre of After the Tone, written by Jenny Knotts and directed by Caitlin Skinner, weaves a narrative of abuse and desperation from just a few fragments of phone calls; we hear little more direct speech than ringing, clicking, dial tones and silence. The woman who repeatedly phones a women’s helpline never gets a chance to describe what is happening to her: the messages she leaves trail off or are abruptly cut short, and when the helpline’s hours of operation are cut shorter and shorter, there is nobody but a machine to register the increasing distress in her voice. In a phone call to a friend to cancel plans or a sick-day interaction with a perfunctory HR person, it’s only in the minute hesitations, the pauses a fraction too long, that anything can be sensed amiss.

In Sara Shaarawi’s The One Who Dies, three performers inhabit the voices of children with entertaining accuracy. The latent violence that runs through their games – games about terrorism and the military and policing – is not physically enacted but only rendered in words: two men and one woman stand still and separate as they read the script, which hints at the points where play is pushed too far (‘Stop it! That hurts!’). Written in the naive voices of children but emanating from the mouths of adults, those moments often echo with the darker connotations of an adult world that is violently gendered and racialised, like the point at which a play ‘marriage’ follows all-too-real patterns of coercion (‘But I don’t want to kiss you.’ ‘You’re my wife so you have to kiss me.’ ‘Don’t touch me! Get off!’). The structure of the game illuminates how cultural narratives seep into consciousness at an early age and the power plays that emerge so easily in groups of kids, who will more readily speak the usually unspoken rules about who’s allowed to inhabit which roles: ‘Why can’t I be the one that saves the world?’ ‘Because you’re a girl.’

The other performances are less theatrical, more personal, but not necessarily more direct. In Discriminator, Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir is frank about her own performativity – ‘I am really good at pretending, really good at putting on a facial expression that has nothing to do with how I am actually feeling’ – and her monologue is packed with caveats and get-out clauses that deliberately undermine the authority of her own voice (‘You don’t have to stay here and listen to me’). In an interview with TYCI, Sigurdardottir described the difficulty of confronting the vast, overwhelming ‘seriousness’ of the night’s theme. In the end, the task of speaking seriously and directly about the topic she has been set proves an unimaginable task; by evading it entirely, the piece becomes partly about that difficulty, about the limits of a single voice to claim authenticity or authority. It’s also an entertainingly strange meditation on the artistic process, the arbitrary affinities bred by online encounters, and the experience of interacting with an audience.

The final theatrical piece of the night, Rose Ruane’s You Can’t Go Back the Way You Came, weaves between performativity and vulnerability, stitching frank reflections on mental illness into a piece of meta-theatre in which the performers are both themselves and not, both honest and evasive. It starts as a conversation between a woman trying to rewrite her narrative of mental illness and a man obsessed with turning female pain into public art, mythologising self-harm as embodied performance. But halfway through, Ruane breaks character to worry that ‘I’ve written you into misandry’, and reassures us that the man opposite her, functioning as a symbol of all the oppressive interventions of patriarchal voices into women’s narratives, is in fact simply a person, and a lovely person at that. The rest of the piece oscillates between their two voices, sometimes as themselves, sometimes each other, and becomes a rhythmic incantation about the process of surviving a painful mind and a hostile world.

A set from Chrissy Barnacle is a fitting end to the night. There’s a certain satisfying contrast between the style of her songs – acoustic, swooping, swooning pieces of lyricised experience, sung in a voice that sounds earnest and baleful – and the frank, acerbic wit of her between-song chat. Each song is preceded by a story about its inception, with tangents into the dark and absurd corners of her life, in a tone that’s cynical and self-aware and unfailingly funny. This double voice – a voice that almost sounds like it’s coming from a different person when she starts to sing – is another performance of the fact that nobody ever speaks from just one position, and that nothing can only be said in one way.

By Shona McCombes