My Head Hurts

My Head Hurts explored grief beyond that which stems from the loss of a person. In this talk chaired by Michael Bassett, the speakers shared their experiences of grief:

Artist, Jim Lockey spoke of ‘feeling orphaned’in the seeming conflict of being both an artist and a Christian, through the suspicion of a liberal art world towards churchgoers. He accepted the feelings of loneliness and loss that ensue. The latter is reflected in his work Boat, also exhibited at Normal? There he comments on the ‘entropy of all things’ by constructing and setting sail in a cardboard boat which inevitably disintegrates. 

Occupational Therapist Rayya Ghul relayed the grief experienced by her refugee parents through geographical changes and cultural shock.  Her German mother’s way of coping was to enact an elaborate, traditional German Christmas every year, even changing the curtains. Ghul also expressed her grief in ageing and accepting ‘the loss of a past that cannot be had and the loss of hopes for a future that is no longer possible’.

Clinical Psychologist Reinhard Guss raised the notion of political grief in terms of the current US presidency and Brexit. His own grief, as a German who calls the UK home, stems from being in a place where he is no longer welcome.  He remarked that although there seemed to be a pressure to ‘work’ on grieving or to refer to stages or psychological models, in reality the ways of grieving are less structured.

The panel all pointed to acceptance as key in coping with grief.  Rituals, in their widest sense, such as Lockey’s creating Boat or through the performative aspect of Ghul’s mother’s German Christmas may act to assuage grief.  My sense is that although every grief has a shape of its own and cannot be easily boxed or wittingly healed, and certainly not to a convenient timeline, through acceptance and practices like these there lies a possibility for its eventual transmutation.  

- Lubna Gem Arielle


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Boat - Jim Lockey

Ephemeral Art, What a Beautiful Thing - That Creative Feeling

Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong - Psychology Today

Pema Chodron / When Things Fall Apart - BrainPickings

Physical Effects of Grief - BBC News

Talking to Grief - Denise Levertov

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter

Ugly Chief // Victoria Melody

Framed as a living funeral, Ugly Chief mines what is at stake when we numbly follow mainstream social norms or accept glib representations of the truth.

The entire show is founded on the misdiagnosis of Victoria Melody’s father with a terminal illness. Although he notices his health fails to plummet, he does not confer with his doctor, as is all too typical in relationships with professionals where technical prowess subsumes empathy. In the space of ignorance, Melody plans her father’s funeral, as requested, and trains as a funeral director. When the doctor’s error comes to light, the Melodys collaborate on ‘Ugly Chief’- a title that emerges from an inaccurate meaning ascribed to their surname picked up from online ancestral research.  There are frequent prods at our tendency to infer truth from unsubstantiated sources, like her father’s apparent familiarity and connection with the culture of New Orleans. As revealed by her research trip, it turns out it's limited to the opening sequence of Live & Let Die.

Melody confronts the conventional taboo of talking about death, luridly describing funeral practices such as sewing mouths closed in an attempt to make corpses parody the living and for death to appear less distressing. She shows us a product range of coffins rising to one at £19,000 with no value to the end-user.  These shiny veneers may offer more comfort than openly discussing death when alive, but in doing so they sidestep environmental factors and we relinquish our freedom of choice. We succumb to limited and often more costly options driven by corporate agendas. 

Rather than experience emotions, we choose what psychotherapist M Scott Peck describes as 'dinner party conversations', prevalent in what he describes as pseudo community: a shallow existence. Melody moves beyond her explorations of death and goes on to break a second taboo, the public airing of familial dirty laundry as she and her father explore their fractured relationship. Experts in truth and conciliation identify this willingness to talk as a precursor to forgiveness. At the end of the show, the Melodys read eulogies for one another that are raw and touching. Although this is a performative work and we have no way knowing what is real, Melody has attuned us to this dilemma earlier by describing her dim experiences at Chelsea College of Art, which include a tutor berating her for a poor understanding of Baudrillard’s Simulacra. In the end, perhaps it is only the willingness to experience emotions, to allow discomfort and speak the unspeakable that sets us free and enables us to be real. 

- Lubna Gem Arielle


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Doctor Patient Relationship - Huffington Post

A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics - Daniel Levitin

Live and Let Die (1973) - New Orleans Funeral Scene

Death Cafe

Death Doulas - Huffington Post

The Different Drum - M Scott Peck

Funerals - Ethical Consumer

The Forgiveness Project

Baudrillard's Simulacra

Keeping My Kidneys // Mindy Raf

Shows at the Fringe are often ABOUT a singular thing: there’s a show about grief, a show about virginity, a show about anxiety, a show about coming out. Perhaps it is a marketing or PR strategy which makes the show ABOUT a singular thing, as its makes it easier to digest and to sell tickets, or it reflects the kernel of an idea which started an artist’s journey on a particular work. If Mindy Raf used the death of her mother as a starting point for her storytelling/stand up set Keeping My Kidneys, her detours, her ramblings, her journeys down the rabbit hole demonstrate that this is anything but just a show about a singular thing.  Instead, Raf makes a bold case for understanding how we are always all of our identities, and how these identities intersect, inform, challenge and support each other in exciting ways.

Along Raf’s journey through self-discovery and self-love are pointed and important revelations about the challenging and absurd realities of the American healthcare system (and its inability to deal with multiple health needs in a holistic way), midwestern Jewishness and family, and marginalized sexual identities (with her reflections on polyamory and pansexuality). As the fight for recognition and equality for LGBTQI+ people internationally and in the UK continues, Raf highlights the continued discomfort for those who fall (or stay) out of the mainstream – with playful conversations about biphobia and normative monogamy which remind us of how far we have to go in terms of true self-determination and pride. Raf challenges the idea that when we are dealing with one issue, or fighting one fight, we are not still engaged in a multitude of questions, oppressions, desires and conflicts. This confluence of influence is what makes Keeping My Kidneys unique in its storytelling: Raf is completely resistant to this being a show ABOUT one thing. Take it all, or leave it all, excitingly Raf has faith in her audience (and perhaps the world in 2017) that they can handle the complex nature of reality. 

- Brian Lobel


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Keeping My Kidneys - Mindy Raf

Polyamory’s Cultural Moment - NPR 

Ongoing Healthcare Debate and the Anxiety It Causes - New York Times

Cannabis Lube

Deathbed Promises on Reddit

Lena Waithe on Master of None and Coming Out Over Time - Vulture

Descent // A Moment White Productions

In Ancient Greece, tragedy was when a character fell to an inevitable fate, usually the consequence of some small mistake in their past. Attempts to escape or thwart this fate only locked them in more tightly. By this definition, Descent is a true tragedy, except that the past mistake was not the central character's but perhaps a small, undetectable error in his genetic code that made him susceptible to dementia.

For Rob, it starts with the loss of his pen, hinting innocuously at memory problems but actually foreshadowing the fundamental loss of identity that dementia will bring. The turning point is when he loses his temper with his daughter over a trivial board game. He accuses her of cheating, calls her a bitch. Research shows we perceive that someone with dementia has changed not when they lose their memories, but when their moral compass goes haywire. 'That's not him', Rob's daughter tells us.

Rob feels himself 'metamorphosing', referring explicitly to Kafka's novella. There is now a hard shell that stops him caring so much about other people's feelings. But it is not only Rob who is in descent. His wife, Cathy, is undergoing her own transformation as she takes on the responsibility of caring for her husband even as he starts caring less for her. The actors playing the couple in this production make their metamorphoses stark, seeming to age years under the stage lights even as the lights in both their eyes go dim.

Rob experiences paranoia - he suspects everyone of moving or even hiding his pen - and is at times physically aggressive towards Cathy. These are common, if less well-known symptoms of dementia. There are hints, too, at the incontinence and loss of physical control that follows. Rob and Cathy are still in their 50s - the prime of life. They were not expecting to have to consider carers and care homes. About 4% of people with dementia are under 65, and it can bring different challenges to living with dementia in later life. It can be harder to recognise and diagnose, and can mean more impact on younger families. Cathy starts grieving Rob before he dies. He has already gone, and the rest is inevitable.

- Michael Regnier


Links relevant to this diagnosis:


Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease - Alzheimer's Research UK

Symptoms - Alzheimer's Society

Carers: Looking After Yourself - Alzheimer's Society 

Neurodegeneration and IdentityPsychological Science (2015) 

The Inevitability of Tragedy - Edge Induced Cohesion (2013) 

I Am A Tree // Jamie Wood

I Am a Tree is not a return to nature as much as a reassertion that the separation between humans and other living things is not absolute, that the human body and its processes are as natural in their rhythms as the growth of a tree or the migrations of birds. It is a memory and a eulogy, to nomadism and to mortality and the fallibility of living things. Jamie Wood greets the audience by listening to their hearts, laying his head on their chests and expelling their worries like a cresting whale.

The show loosely follows the progress of Wood’s journey by foot from Coventry to South Wales, leaving his young baby and partner at home in order to reconnect to the wild. The story meanders like its protagonist, but like any journey the progress is more important than the destination. His walk is a peculiar kind of mindfulness exercise, a mental health time-out in a relentless period of change. Wood’s life at home haunts the piece, never really spoken of in detail but always lurking beyond the next hill. Questions of responsibility vie with a commitment to self-realisation. The comedy in his journey too is always on the verge of tipping into abstraction and doubt. Wood’s clowning and slapstick blurs into meditative tasks, an unlooping of bootlaces slowly moving from Chaplin to Mona Hatoum.

I Am a Tree also asks that the audience use their own bodies in service of the story, whether using a blowdart to pop the ‘weight of death’ that hangs above Wood’s head during a speech about his grandfather, or asking several spectators to move on stage as animals whilst he cradles another. Participants are gifted a vegetable reward for their efforts, hacked from a broccoli tree. A plant-based replacement for the energy they expel. These actions are measured by a slow drip of water from a red bladder that marks the duration of the show. These images remain, half remembered and fleeting, like moments from a walk.

-       Lewis Church

This diagnosis is based on a preview performance at Ovalhouse, London. I Am a Tree runs in Edinburgh at Assembly George Square from the 14-27th of August.


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Jamie Wood – I Am a Tree

What is Walking Meditation?Wild Mind

Humans Need to Reconnect with NatureTree Hugger

Walking and Grief The Globe and Mail

Parental Burnout – NYMag 

Charlie Chaplin Eat His Shoes - From The Gold Rush (1925)

Mona Hatoum – Performance Still (1985/1995)

OSCAR / Vertebra Theatre

OSCAR / Vertebra Theatre

Two young queer girls meet in a nightclub and bond over a copy of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. When tragedy interrupts their burgeoning romance, only Oscar can provide comfort. This new puppet and dance-based piece by Vertebra Theatre (makers of the acclaimed Dark Matter) explores “queer identities and first love” through “visual imageries, garbage film, devised text and dance.”

IT FOLDS / Junk Ensemble & Brokentalkers

IT FOLDS / Junk Ensemble & Brokentalkers

At first, It Folds feels baffling, a blur whose beauty defies close analysis. It blurs the boundaries between life and death, making the ghosts of murdered children walk among their grieving families. It blurs the lines between truth and fiction, drawing on real-life stories of child abduction but muddying their details until they become universal. And most of all, it blurs the categories we place performance into. Its large cast mix dance, physical theatre, matter-of-fact monologues and disconcerting wit into a piece that creates a incense-heady atmosphere of its own.