Sharp Edges (written and performed by Amelia Sweetland) is an intense exploration of female mental illness. Filmed sequences and voiceover showing Sophie at home are used to break up a series of sessions Sophie has with the therapist her GP sends her to when she complains of insomnia. Slowly, Sophie's past and Sophie herself start to unravel.
At first glance Sophie is a typical London businesswoman; busy, stressed, and self-absorbed (but self-aware enough to feel guilty about it).
The writing skilfully toys with the line between the commonplace neuroses of everyday life, and mental illness, provoking the audience to question how one separates the two and defines discrete mental illnesses. When in the first scene Sophie explains that she follows the Paleo diet ("primal eating") but is thinking of going vegan, it's funny: a light satire on modern life. In hindsight this constant flitting and indecisive attempts to define herself and form some cohesive sense of self-identity look very different. A throwaway line about a yoga teacher explaining she hasn't "breathed properly in years" is imbued with subtext. Her insecurity and self-castigation hints at obsessive thoughts and depression. A fear of dying and of disability becomes a metaphor for the loss of control; control and the need for perfection is indicative of obsessive thoughts. What appears to be simply a busy, stressed woman not sleeping slowly expands to reveal a history of serious mental illness.
Many different issues related to mental health and mental health treatment are addressed here: psychosis, manic-depression and OCD; treatment resistance; family; fear; food and how food becomes a gendered weapon; medication and its side effects; passivity versus action; and the power and control of the medical establishment.
Repetition of dialogue, silence (to increase both tension and humour), and metaphors like water imagery to represent obsessive thoughts are used to great effect. The mundane chatter in the darkness leaves the audience alone with their own thoughts, as Sophie is alone with hers.
The piece addresses, both comedically and seriously, several issues relating to mental health treatment. Sophie satirises the concept of self-care with a sarcastic speech about her bedtime pre-sleep routine (involving chamomile tea and a lavender scented candle), later contrasting this with her actual form of self-care, two cups of coffee and some paracetamol. The piece also addresses the modern dilemma: we are all just too damn knowing. Like many modern women raised on women's magazines and pop psychology, Sophie is relatively experienced and knowledgeable about mental illness. "I know all this," she says. But knowing will not save her. Sophie's therapist is sympathetic and perfectly likeable, but he represents the benign dictatorship of the mental health professional. Because Sophie has a history of serious mental health issues, a straightforward request for sleeping pills to overcome an episode of minor insomnia sees her rushed into intense therapy against her wishes. A later blistering speech eviscerates the sheer amount of well-meaning advice and rules people suffering from mental health crisis are subject to. Listening to all the advice and following all the rules is enough to make you crazy in the first place!
The play also confronts one of the major issues behind treatment resistant patients. It may be unpopular or controversial, but contrary to stereotype some forms of mental illness can provide great reassurance or even be enjoyable. The language Sophie uses to describe her manic episode ("magical", "divine" "serene" and "fairytale") gives a glimpse into a mental state many people have never experienced and thus cannot truly understand.
Theatre addressing mental illness is common, but theatre addressing mental illness (especially in women) in a thoughtful and non-stereotypical way is not. This piece is unusual in exploring female psychosis, as opposed to mental illnesses that are more traditionally gendered as female, like depression or eating disorders. In fact Sophie, despite using food as a basis for her attempts at creating a solid self-identity, is emphatically not suffering from an audience-friendly 'feminine' eating disorder: when she eats chocolate during a therapy session it comes across as an act of defiance. Sharp Edges is glorious in avoiding the worst and stereotypes about female mental illness, and in doing so creates a fully rounded and engaging portrayal that is firmly rooted in truth. (NJW)
Sharp Edges ran to 28th August at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden, with shows at 4.30pm daily.
Mental Illness in Popular Media: Essays on the Representation of Disorders https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=MaCeT00R-VMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Women and Psychosis http://tinyurl.com/gprmsxl
The Psychopathology of Cinema: How Mental Illness and Psychotherapy are Portrayed in Film https://core.ac.uk/download/files/261/10683817.pdf
Treatment Resistance: Challenges and Solutions http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/treatment-resistance-challenges-and-solutions
According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Sophie, the character at the centre of Amelia Sweetland’s work in progress, Sharp Edges, is one of them, although you may initially be fooled into thinking she is perfectly “normal” – a term she later uses in an inner monologue to describe other people, from whom she feels distinct.
The play opens in a therapist’s consulting room where Sophie, a well turned out, high-achieving career woman casually discusses a variety of exercise and nutritional regimes but begins by denying any deeper problems. She only grudgingly discusses her difficulties sleeping, then her past anxiety attacks and their terrifying symptoms.
The mask of ‘normality’ that she attempts to maintain is contrasted with the video projections that are interspersed between the dialogue. They offer a vision of Sophie’s interior life, the multiple critical voices in her head and her evident isolation, which are accompanied by a sinister, unsettling sound track. These projections have an increasingly manic pace of editing as the play progresses, showing her obsessively scrubbing and cleaning and featuring a repeated, increasingly rapid and incomprehensible inner monologue suggestive of mental collapse. The audio from the projections begins to bleed into the therapy sessions themselves, signalling her incipient psychological breakdown. She starts to exhibit increasingly disturbing signs of anger, panic and anxiety in the therapy sessions, eventually screaming repeatedly, “It can’t happen again.”
Sophie’s fear of admitting mental health problems, and of their recurrence (not to mention her anxieties about taking medication) are met with ineffectual responses from the therapist, who alternately interrupts impatiently, wears inanely sympathetic expressions, or makes trite reassurances that she is ‘doing really well’ and will ‘overcome this’. Whether the therapist is intended as a critique of mental health provision, is simply a cipher, or is ill-served by the writing is hard to determine. (RG)
Sharp Edges was performed 24th – 28th August at Etcetera Theatre as part of the 2016 Camden Fringe.
Mental health facts and statistics in UK: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/
Talking therapies for stress, anxiety and depression: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/types-of-therapy.aspx
Living with anxiety: Britain’s silent epidemic: http://tinyurl.com/j95qcbp
Research resources on the effectiveness of counselling: http://www.bacp.co.uk/research/resources/