Care & Destruction

Care & Destruction of a Childhood // Lemn Sissay

Where does one start with an energy like Lemn Sissay’s? Lemn appears on stage and immediately builds a rapport with the audience as only he can. Lemn takes us on an intensely personal journey full of humour and poignancy. I have been privileged to have heard many people speak about the care system, and it is indeed a privilege to listen to his thoughts and experiences.

Sissay’s story begins in 1966 when his mother came to England from Ethiopia whilst pregnant. As a single mother, she was sent to Lancashire to give birth to Lemn, who was then promptly placed into foster care in order for his mother to complete her studies in Berkshire. Lemn goes on to say that he was given the name ‘Norman’ and placed into the foster care of a white English family. “Norman?” he asks, “Do I look like a Norman?”. I feel stunned. He is talking of a system that is trying to take away his identity, his name, his culture, his background, his people. This is what that feels like.

Lemn is at pains to stress that to foster a child is amongst the greatest acts of humanity, and that his story should not deter from that. It is, after all, his story he is telling and no one else’s. Intertwined throughout his talk are profound observations like “Dysfunction is at the heart of all functioning families”. It takes a moment for that statement to truly sink in, but it makes complete and perfect sense.

Although it is the story of his journey, there are also life lessons. He talks of the need for people to be kind to themselves, to try and forgive, for it is only through forgiveness that Lemn has found redemption and a certain closure. I leave the auditorium reflecting on Lemn’s journey and what he has to say, and although there are moments where one feels dismay at the social care system, it is also a story of hope and never giving up on dreams and aspirations. Inspirational!

- Amar Hussein

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay (Profile) - Guardian

The Emperor’s Watchmaker (Lemn Sissay Blog)

Lemn Sissay: Why Does Society Hate Young People in Care? - The Big Issue

Poet sets out to help young care leavers - Channel 4 News

Who Cries Wins // Martin O'Brien & Guests

This discussion of autobiographical performance and trauma explored a notional increase in artists making work engaging with these themes. Are there really more artists using personal stories as the basis for their work? Or is it simply that the particular qualities of this labour are now acknowledged more readily? That testimonies of trauma (particularly by artists of colour, disabled artists and those with lived experience of mental health issues) are now recognised as far more than mere self-indulgence? The artists Martin O’Brien, Mele Broomes and Amelia Stubberfield made up a panel presenting three very different but interrelated perspectives on these questions, refracting the central theme of the festival (Care & Destruction) back through their personal narratives and artistic practices.  

O’Brien is an artist whose exploration of his own status as someone with cystic fibrosis has pushed his body to the limits of endurance. Through his strategic deployment of SM techniques, medical ritual and pop-cultural mythologies (most recently the figure of the zombie, after passing his life expectancy of 30) his work challenges audience to witness the process of the body and the experience of sickness. This is very different to Broomes, whose work Grin was performed in excerpt at Care & Destruction. Broomes discussed her experience as a dancer of colour, someone whose very body troubles the overwhelmingly white spaces of institutional culture, and the pressure that goes with it. How even well-meaning attempts to engage with artists of colour can still leave the onus on them to both explain their experience and offer solutions for how it could be resolved. Stubberfield, whose piece Borderline was also part of the festival weekend, offered a very different perspective. Presenting a more narrative practice, an investement in stand-up as a form, which centres the notion of story more than either O’Brien or Broomes, they discussed how comedy might provide a vehicle for serious and honest discussion. 

Although very different practices, each artist arrived by their own route to a series of similar and related questions. Who is in the audience and does autobiography serve them? The presentation of personal testimony can be a powerful catharsis. Who gets to make the decisions around the work? How is performance dealing with the intensely personal presented, marketed, made public, and where? Each artist claimed their practice as a way to take responsibility for the work they wanted to make – the assertion of something important to each of them. And in that, perhaps, there is much for the audience, venues and cultural institutions to consider.  

-      Lewis Church

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Martin O’Brien - BBC Ouch Podcast

About V/DA - Mele Broomes

Amelia Stubberfield

Autobiography and Performance - Deirdre Heddon

Lyn Gardner: Theatre is embracing diversity, but it’s still not enough. - The Stage

Mental Health in the arts: Are we talking about it enough? - London Evening Standard

As Far As Isolation Goes // Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa

As described in the Care & Destruction programme, “As Far As Isolation Goes uses touch, sound, and interactivity to bring audience members in contact with those faced with inhumane detention centres and a mental health system that disregard their political and emotional contexts.”

I faced a wall with headphones hung at the side and a seat facing sideways. Right next to it was a hole big enough for an adult arm to go through. I put on the headphones and started hearing haunting music. Suddenly a voice starts speaking and I’m told I need to put my arm through the hole - which is gently guided in. I listen to the voice telling me about systems and policies, about separation, isolation and loss. I feel strange, a little disoriented, and start to get lost in my own thoughts and feelings on the matter.

All the while, I feel the touch of someone who I cannot see drawing on my arm. It is a strange feeling for me and I start to concentrate on what’s going on around my arm. I find myself thinking “I wonder what is happening?”. It feels uncomfortable that my arm is being drawn on by an artist, who I am assume has lived the experiences and whose voice I am hearing through the recording in the headphones. My feeling is not unlike other feelings I have experienced when hearing the stories of migration, of loss, of struggle, of the need to be respected as a human being. This feels like it needs to be heard.

At this point I get lost in my thoughts about this particular issue and the audio is a bit of a blur. I quickly regain focus because I want to listen to and hear what’s being said. At the heart of it all is a story, a story where hope has been eradicated in places like Palestine, a story where people are literally fleeing for their lives, a story where upon reaching the so called promised land they’re treated as unwelcome guests, aliens, as not worthy of having access to opportunities. At the end, my arm is freed, and I feel relief, and passed to me is a piece of chalk to write what I like on the wall that divides us. For a fleeting moment, I feel I am the refugee and write a comment about how capitalism needs reform, as this struggle is related to the capitalistic ideals much of the world holds dear.

- Amar Hussein

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Tania El Khoury / Basel Zaraa

Music in Detention

‘The Jungle’: Putting the Refugee Crisis Centre Stage - NY Review of Books

The Jungle - National Theatre

EU Claims Migrant Crisis is Over - Quartz

Oral // Viv Gordon

ORAL is a play about mouths and starts with Viv Gordon running. It is the 90s, and she is running away. In this neon-lit setting, Viv starts to tell her story. She talks about her fear of dentistry and her love of cooking. Cooking — she explains — is predictable: it’s a safe-space. But her daydreams of being on MasterChef often end with an unhappy twist as the dish she tries to create based on a childhood memory is found unacceptable by the censors.

ORAL is a play about childhood sexual abuse and its effects on adult survivors. It is a story of a survivor, made not only to raise awareness and visibility, but to empower other survivors, and it does so with the utmost respect. Viv’s memories are told in allegory; she compares her childhood self to a princess who lives in a colourful kingdom but gets lost in a deep, dark forest.  It talks about topics that are still considered taboo today even though 90,000 people in the UK alone are affected by them. 

While the play deals with heavy topics, it still manages to maintain an optimistic outlook. Alongside the comedic elements, like the surrealistic dance with cheek retractors,the main source of light remains hope. The effectiveness of hope lies in its subtlety, as at the moment when Viv is ready to leave the dentist's office and the doctor mentions that he read the article that she had sent earlier. This simple act of reading her article about the connections of childhood sexual abuse and dental fear fills not only Viv, but also the audience with hope for the future.

The 90s are having a renaissance today. Like the recently premiered Captain Marvel film, which seemingly starts with a clichéd ‘girl-power’ agenda of having to prove your worth to your abuser but debunks it by the end, ORAL shows how feminism and mental-health activism have changed in the past three decades. Victim-blaming has slowly been recognized as a problem, and the idea that people can remain comfortably neutral on certain topics too. 

ORAL is a play about hope and ends with Viv Gordon running. It is the present day, and she is running towards the future. She is running with her fellow performers, who are also her friends and allies. They remind the audience about the importance of change — about how by not pursuing it, we as a society, maintain a status quo that is harmful to many. In our time, having good intentions is not good enough: only our actions matter. 

-      Masha Laszlo

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Viv Gordon

Key Facts and Figures - NAPAC

Tips for Abuse Survivors - Dental Fear Central

Dental Hygiene Care for Survivors of Childhood Abuse - Oral Health Group

The Psychological Impact of Victim Blaming and How to Stop It - US News

Captain Marvel Has Nothing to Prove to You - Pajiba

I Tried To Fuck Up The System But None Of My Friends Texted Me Back // Travis Alabanza

In the the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room at the end of an intense festival weekend, the audience experienced this work through headphones, pre-made recordings, mime, audience interaction, dance and the combing of hair. Intimacy was referenced and we were given an insight into the artists’ thoughts through headphones that place Alabanza ‘inside’ your head. We were on the London Underground. A woman was crying. A man tried to comfort her. It felt better. 

Alabanza narrates dimensions of loneliness. It’s in the soles of your feet, it’s compassion verses danger, it’s failure and perfection and it’s about fear of people you don’t know. Their voice is strangely comforting as they talk to us about texting and everyone being on a podium. They talk to us about how they cried on the Underground after a friend died and no one helped. London is ranked as one of the loneliest cities in the world, and loneliness is about a lack of connection or communication with other people or animals. It can be felt even when you’re surrounded by other people.

Gradually, throughout the piece the audience were able to decide to join in: to dance, to be a human sculpture, to comfort people. The show ended with someone from the audience combing Alabanza’s hair, just as their Mum used to. This was loneliness and togetherness as an epic, multi layered and multi-sensory experience. The piece discussed chronic loneliness, but somehow by the end I felt, as many of the audience seemed to, as though we’d shared something together. This, as Alabanza explains, is a way to fuck up the system and to make a change. 

- Gini Simpson

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Travis Alabanza

Is Travis Alabanza the future of theatre? - Guardian

Loneliness Lab

Samaritans (UK)

Humans of Greater London

#UKDrillProject // HighRise Theatre


When a performance starts with a rave, you might think of it as being quite bizarre. People were being asked for their ID upon entering, which gave off the impression that you were about to enter a night club. When you did you found a VIP section and a drinks bar at the ready. DRILL music was being blasted out of the stereos. DRILL music videos were being played on the wall, which you could put headphones on and listen to. This immersive part of the performance gave the audience a chance to get to know one another and break the ice. Whilst you were in this room you become more aware of your surroundings. It was a chance to appreciate the images and displays that were shown on the walls. One in particular was quite intriguing - not a picture per-se but a type of fact file which explained in bold letters how two DRILL rappers had been sentenced to nine months in prison because they were performing their music to a live audience.  


As the partying part of the performance came to an end we were then led into the auditorium. Here the performers addressed the stereotyping and racial discrimination of people who listen to DRILL, and how DRILL is deemed to be a main source of street crime. Where people are inexplicably being arrested because of the colour of their skin, DRILL and the type of music they listen to is the excuse. Why it is ok to arrest an individual whom was just revising for an exam, or just calmly walking down the street? As the performance tried to show, nobody wants crime, nobody wants to see their friend being shot in front of their eyes, and nobody wants to be stabbed on their way home from school. People unjustifiably force people into one category, and have been doing so for so long that those people are then saying to themselves “if that’s what they think of me then I might as well fit their description. Maybe then they will leave me alone”. Members of the public are getting up to two years in prison and why? It’s the DRILL music, apparently. 


Society has branded DRILL (a form of expression) as a violent form that we must get rid of in order to make the streets safer. In order to really make the streets safer, Theresa May and the government need to actually listen to the youth, the up-and-coming generation, for they have the answers to how to stop gun and knife crime. If you are not listening and have already made your mind up, if you blame DRILL, then you haven’t caught the right guy, you’ve framed him.

-       Selen Adem


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

HighRise Theatre

#UKDRILLProject - GQ

What is UK Drill? - Red Bull Music

 Conversation on Drill Arrests - Reddit

Unkown T Interview - Evening Standard

Elephant in the Room // Lanre Malaolu

Bouncing across the stage of Camden People’s Theatre, Lanre Malaolu uses the physical to reflect the social. His movement on stage mirrors his movement through life, echoing the way his body as a black man in Britain today is seen, read, and considered by others. Taking on stereotypes but looping them, making them strange by heightening and twisting their dynamics, his athletic investment adds weight to what might otherwise be familiar representations. The characters Malaolu embodies are varied, from the inspirational football coach to someone all cocky young swagger. They are each archetypes of identity consistently played out in television, film and the media, from news reports to Channel 4 drama. He differentiates each through a discrete posture (like a slouch in a Nando’s booth), and/or a series of sparse actions (sedately trimming hair in a barbershop). 

Although distinct, within the show these different characters, both the central ‘Michael’ and the unnamed others, could easily also make sense as a single figure – one person rendered in multiple fragments. Malaolu’s shifting shows how the articulate and inspirational speech given to even younger men in a half-time huddle might itself cloak a deep insecurity, always at risk of fracturing under the pressure. Or how the wisdom of an older man might reflect a lifetime of the same pressures he now gives advice on. In doing so it makes plain how the marginalizing operations of society relies on those it puts under pressure to prop up those it will fall on next. 

As much as each set of movements, postures and different voices delineate characters, Malaolu’s performance adds one more. The body of a trained dancer, the way someone moves who has put in the time to learn his technique, is itself an embodiment of a personality. A way to exist in the world, a way to define your own body, from the mastery of steps to the poise of the stance. It controls the gaze of the audience, the way the body is seen, in a way that those young men represented here are usually denied. 

-      Lewis Church


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Lanre Malaolu

Elephant In the Room – Guardian

‘Up My Streets’ Project – MIND

Perceptions of Young Black Men – Independent

MANDEM– Media platform for young men of colour.

100 Black Men of London 

Borderline // Amelia Stubberfield

Borderline by Amelia Stubberfield bears a similarity to the recent evolution of stand-up (with Hannah Gadsby's Nanette as the iconic example), where the conventional structure is punctured, warped and eventually collapsed in the face of true stories of suffering.

For Stubberfield, these stories centre around their years of mental health issues, distilled to a tome of medical notes and a three-letter diagnosis: BPD. Borderline personality disorder, affecting less than 2% of the population can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including fear of abandonment, suicidal ideation and difficulty in maintaining relationships. As Stubberfield self-deprecates, 'the Tinder profile writes itself'.

Their medical notes, along with recorded interviews with both friends and clinicians, offer different windows onto their experience of BPD - "Or, as I call it, life". Medical notes and similar documents have been used by other artists (from Bobby Baker to the vacuum cleaner) in attempts to illustrate the lonely and often grueling journey through the mental health system. With this piece, they serve to fracture the storytelling, as Stubberfield's BPD is seen through the eyes of many separate people across the mental health system - some looking with warmth, some coldly clinical.

In Borderline, Stubberfield vividly illustrates the entanglement of identity and illness by scrawling phrases from her medical notes on her body. In this way, they highlight how easy it is to conflate the sufferer and the symptoms. One therapist is 'bored during sessions with Amelia'; another notes they are 'casually yet appropriately dressed'. Where is the line between Stubberfield's actual and Disordered Personality? Every action is vulnerable to pathologisation, as seen in a re-enacted phone call with the CMHT officer.

Though life with BPD is described openly and vividly, the greyscale 'other place' of mental illness can only be truly understood by those who have already been there. It is alluded to right at the start, before Stubberfield steps onstage: we hear a rising cacophony of noise and drone, building to an uncomfortable volume. A snap from black to a spotlight, revealing Amelia and a microphone. The stand-up starts and the first topographical lines are laid of that other place, from which they may only recently have returned.

- Hannah Maxwell

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Amelia Stubberfield

How common are mental health problems? - Mind

Borderline Personality Disorder - Mind

Community Mental Health Teams - Rethink Mental Illness

Bobby Baker: The Art of Surviving Mental Illness - Guardian

the vacuum cleaner - Mental