BY Holly Pester in Opinion | 09 AUG 18

My Skin is A Riot: Watching Maria Fusco’s ‘ECZEMA!’

At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the eczema-sufferer and writer

BY Holly Pester in Opinion | 09 AUG 18

You might struggle to predict the tone of a theatrical exploration of a skin condition. Yet for Maria Fusco’s new performance piece, the title ECZEMA! in bold type on punk colours with exclamation, announces itself like a rock musical or obscenity. The mood of the event was drawn by an initial set of short presentations by artists, performers and my favourite kind of charismatic academics. True to Fusco’s bibliographically inventive programming the line-up saw a cringingly brilliant comedy routine full of emollient puns, a leading dermatologist’s own piano composition dedicated to the condition, and scholarly poetics of skin mixed with a cultural history of scratching. The latter section was outdone by some children in the audience giggling knowingly as Sam Hasler read an Alistair Gray story about an epic bout of scab-picking.

The dynamic of professional inquiry into scratching, subverted by the raw experience of an itch, was the manifest tension in the main piece, an extraordinary text performed by actor, Rhodri Meilir, and musician, John Harris on a rambunctious pipe organ. Meilir whose unguarded presence and big Welsh voice – his accent catching on the scratchiest words – was a striking deferral from Fusco’s ambiguously autobiographical text. He read from the script, grazing the pages as he turned them in a theatrics of contact. A strange epidermal animal background track was created from a recording of a 30-second scratch (Fusco scuffing her own eczematic skin with a contact-mic glove) stretched and set to the 30-minute piece. This track accented the eerie Spinozian negotiations of what is ‘me’ and what is environment, and the sci-fi horror of experiencing eczema as something that is ‘working its way out’ than something that is ‘working its way in’.

Organist John Harries performing Maria Fusco’s, ECZEMA!, 2018. Courtesy: National Theatre of Wales, Cardiff; photograph: Dan Green

The scored irritation progressed in paroxysmic rhythms, unleashing the auto-erotics and benignly directed passions of intense itching. But who is speaking in this text? Sometimes the subject position came from the microclimate of wounded skin. At others, the voice spoke as a social subject expressing its experience of eczema to convince of the often hidden, physical distress; ‘I would wrench my skin off if I could … Ratchet deep about my folds and rasp the tender places’.  This scandalous body was spoken variously as if indistinguishable and then distinct from self: ‘I am flammable’, ‘IT is not me’.

This recurring dilemma over whether eczema is alien intruder or a product of self, evolved from an existential stress over the boundaries of ego and skin, compelled the comparison between eczema-sufferer and the figure of a writer. Both sit alone for hours, scoring, scraping and grazing at a persistent, in situ complaint. Scratcher-writers are in a feedback loop of itching skin and elaborating an idea – an image that reaches an intensity as we picture the writer sat ponderously in an office, ‘lightly chewing’ their own scabs.

Rhodri Meilir and organist John Harries performing Maria Fusco’s, ECZEMA!, 2018. Courtesy: National Theatre of Wales, Cardiff; photograph: Dan Green

As an act of writing, the folds of this text really were dug into. Much of the score is alive with experiments in wild, tactile descriptions. Scabs are ‘slubbed monuments’, and embodied skin is a ‘sticky human ball … crusted in crunchy ochre’. The manic appetites to write and to scratch were both posed as drives towards revealing details; it’s only enough when it’s already too much. I was taken by how minute calculations over when, where and how to scratch – ‘The deep SCRATCHING I enjoy on the front of my neck doesn’t work on the back, here I need stubby stabs’ – often revealed small lesions of a story. Such a vignette described the speaker being examined by group of young male junior doctors, ‘nipples shredded’ and ‘burning sternum’. 

Where ECZEMA! excelled was in making an artwork about the ‘flammable’ distraction from work. Eczema is unbearably in the way of calm thoughtfulness. Attention to it as a topic requires a kind of disturbed focus in which it ultimately refuses to be interesting or beautiful, or even fully medicalized. Because it is difficult to keep a thought still these days, without it combusting into an exasperation, this feels apt. Thankfully ECZEMA! is not a polemic on the horrors of the day, rather a study of the body’s miscellany of culturally freighted products and vulgarities that can, given rare attention, be twisted into metaphors or treated with sympathetic meaning.

Rhodri Meilir, organist John Harries and Maria Fusco, performing Maria Fusco’s ECZEMA!, 2018. Courtesy: National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff; photograph: Dan Green

This eccentric and impersonal/personal study of the condition was affecting but joyful. It left me with a realization: the act of scratching eczema’s abrasions is itself a monstrous version of productivity, composed of impulse, consumption, self-detachment, surplus accumulation, where scratching is ultimately a devilish perversion of work and writing. 

Maria Fusco’s ECZEMA! was performed at the BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on 28 July 2018. An audio recording of Eczema! will be released by Accidental Records this autumn. 

Main image: Atopic dermatitis on the ear. Courtesy: © Professor Raimo Suhonen /  DermNet New Zealand

Holly Pester is a poet and writer. Her latest novel is The Lodgers (Granta, 2024).