Hannah Nicklin is a swimmer. That is, “swimmer” is a fundamental part of how she defines herself. This autobiographical piece, part of Northern Stage at Summerhall, is all about that self, and in particular, how she sought to add a chapter to her personal story by completing an Ironman triathlon. It’s more than just a boast about her success, but for the eighty minute duration, the sense of a friend humble-bragging about their sporting feats on Facebook is never far away.
The story is told relatively straight. Nicklin stands casually, almost apologetically, delivering the tale in a tone half-way between the lecture hall and pub spoken word night. She’s an easy-going performer, and her cosy chatting style is effective with the audience. Behind her is a laptop projection, used to scroll through the youtube clips, flickr streams and fitness apps that round out her words. “The storied self” is a sports psychology term she introduces early on – it refers to the things an athlete tells themself to push them to higher limits – and her own storied self is much in evidence. It’s no surprise she has achieved what she has.
Her delivery of the piece has all the right dynamics, but the peaks and troughs she hits relate to muscle pains, changes in her dopamine levels, or distances she’s reached. While she’s quick to accept the audience might be unfamiliar with the technical aspects of training, and readily drops out of presentation mode to explain, it’s still hard for non-sportspeople to engage with this kind of material on an emotional level. There’s little here that transcends the personal or scientific to offer more universal insight.
Yet it does briefly threaten to offer something more. An opening segment in which she screens video footage of exhausted, wobbly-legged Ironman athletes crawling to the finish suggests we’re in for a fuller exploration of the human psyche at the limits of endurance. But then it’s dragged back to the personal, and the wider context lost again.
While she brings in other characters – family and friends – and urges us that it’s their story too, it’s not. These people exist in this only as part of Team Nicklin. With one exception, that is. It’s an exception which not coincidentally is also the most affecting passage. She falls to silence as she uses her laptop to tell the story of a late friend who died in an accident. This dexterous use of tabs and copy/paste proves to be a powerful storytelling mechanism.
Were this purely an educational event, there’d be much to learn from Nicklin’s story, not least if you were planning for your own feat of physical endurance. But the ambition is bigger than that, and Equations for a Moving Body doesn’t reach far beyond its narrow topical confines.