MENTAL HEALTH

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

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

Yvette // Urielle Klein-Mekongo

Urielle Klein-Mekongo, and the character she has created, Yvette, are young. Urielle and Yvette are young, capable, smart and talented women, who share an immense story about Yvette’s childhood trauma, using multi-character monologue, a looped audio score, and a physical presence which is strong but vulnerable, both available to an audience’s gaze yet firmly beyond our grasp. Urielle and Yvette are young, as are all those who experience childhood abuse and sexual assault at a young age. 

Over the summer, the New York State Legislature failed, yet again, to pass the Child Victims Act – to extend the statute of limitations on child abuse cases - or even to bring the law to a vote. And while Yvette lives in the UK, age 13, and her portrayal by Klein-Mekongo is complicated, rich and multi-faceted, I couldn’t help thinking about the other young survivors of abuse who, unlike Yvette, lack the confidence, or means, or mental preparedness to confront their abuser in their lifetime, pursue legal justice, or even find coping mechanisms to deal with trauma.

Yvette is a portrait of a woman at the epicenter of a world heavy with –isms: racism, sexism, body fascism, classism, colorism. And as audience members, we watch with a sense of powerlessness, waiting, hoping for something to disrupt the trajectory which is not inevitable, but feels probable, in a world which rarely privileges or looks out for young people in any manner which is more than just disciplinarily. That Yvette's story exists at all is a tragedy in any society, but the fact that it is as common as it is is an absolute disgrace, and a reminder that these isms- particularly sexism - are deeply rooted and need to be dismantle at every turn. What is rare, though, is the image of such a trauma being performed with such strength, dignity and commitment - the audience can watch with horror what happens to Yvette while simultaneously finding Klein-Kemongo's performance a reminder of the power of storytelling.

- Brian Lobel

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Yvette - Urielle Klein-Mekongo

 On the New York State Child Victims Act - NY Daily News

Rates of Violent Crime and Sexual Offences - Office of National Statistics (UK)

Further Support: Rape Crisis England and Wales 

Race and Gender at Edinburgh Fringe: Excerpts from the Diary of a Black Woman at the Edinburgh Fringe by Selina Thompson - Exeunt

PreScribed (A Life Written for Me) // Viv Gordon

In PreScribed, made by Viv Gordon based on verbatim text from interviews with GPs and research at the University of Bristol, there is an air of nostalgia for how healthcare used to be. The ideal seems to resemble the life of Dr John Sassall, an English country doctor whose dedicated, all-consuming approach to caring for the people in his community was captured by John Berger in A Fortunate Man (1967). But, as Dr Gavin Francis has written, 'in today’s culture of working-time-directives and the commercialisation of disease it would be almost impossible to sustain'. (It may have been almost impossible in the 1960s too, if Sassall hadn't had what was then called manic depression).

The voices of some of today's GPs, chosen and channelled by Gordon onstage as a medical 'everywoman' character, speak about lifetimes of (over) achievement, trying to meet parents' expectations, years and years of study. Once qualified, they then found the profession was even harder than they'd expected. They are constantly being squeezed by NHS funding cuts, the churn of government policies and the ever-decreasing time they have to spend with each patient. No wonder their own mental health can suffer as a result, but who can they turn to for help? Their GP? 'Telling someone who does the exact same job as you that you can't manage is impossible'.

Hearing only the doctors' point of view risks making the show a bit like a one-sided tennis match. The only other character on stage, the practice manager, remains silent throughout and patients are initially represented by jellies on plates, vulnerable and easily smashed. There is little counter argument or context. For example, the doctors believe their profession has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK. This is based on research, but in fact, the latest statistics show that male doctors are at a lower risk of suicide than the general population, and while female healthcare workers are at a higher risk, this mostly relates to nurses. This is not to diminish the importance of GPs getting support whenever they need it, but current mental health services in the UK fail many more people than just those who work in them.

There is no doubt, however, that increasing pressure on GPs and other healthcare workers while ignoring their own health needs can only damage the NHS. We can't go back to 1967, but for the future of the NHS to be sustainable, we need to support it properly, as well as the people who make it work.

- Michael Regnier

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

PreScribed (A Life Written for Me) - Viv Gordon

Who Cares for the Clinicians? Spiers et al - British Journal of General Practice (2016) 

NHS Spending Per Person Will be Cut Next Year, Ministers Confirm - The Independent 

John Berger's A Fortunate Man: A Masterpiece of WitnessThe Observer 

Mental Health Staff Recruitment Plan for England - BBC News

Suicide by Occupation, England: 2011-2015 - Office for National Statistics (2017) 

Help if You're Feeling Suicidal - The Samaritans

Give Me Your Love // Ridiculusmus

Being stuck in a box is the central image of Give Me Your Love, both as a metaphor and as a literal attempt by the central character to deal with PTSD from military service. A former member of the Welsh Guards haunted by his experiences in Iraq, Zach hides within and speaks from inside his pockmarked cardboard shelter. This first box is contained within another, the grimy walls of a dilapidated flat, another four walls to keep people out and away from his damage. The voices which intrude from the outside corridor, a wife and a friend, are trying to offer help without adequate support from a government that makes cynical use of its soldiers.

Combat stress, PTSD and other mental health issues are endemic to veterans, compounded today by the nefarious project of austerity and a culture of silence (particularly for men). The turn towards self-medication, like the self-prescribed MDMA cure pursued by Zach, occurs when other effective treatments are unavailable. As mental health services are cut by governments, defunded and under-supported, more and more people are cut adrift, even when their injuries are the result of their national service. MDMA has proved remarkably successful in clinical trials, but such initiatives occupy a bleak confluence of political blindspots – the trauma of war and the scars it leaves, the effectiveness of a drug long demonised and the recognition that what has already been offered has been markedly inadequate.

Whilst men and women are still sent to kill in the name of a nation, they are owed the support and medicine to deal with the after-effects of this responsibility. Whether, as Zach’s delirious monologue suggests, he witnessed a heinous decapitation or is simply traumatised by the lack of action during his tour, clinical innovation through projects like MDMA therapy deserve the support of the countries that sends it citizens to work as soldiers. War is hell, but a purgatory of distress and flashbacks is no acceptable journey home.

-       Lewis Church

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Give Me Your LoveRidiculusmus

Combat Stress – The Veteran's Mental Health Charity

Treating PTSD with MDMA-Assisted Therapy

MDMA for PTSD?Live Science

Concerned Clinicians and Researchers Network

War Neuroses: Netley Hospital, 1918 – Wellcome Archive

Desperation Bingo // Creative Electric

It is brave to incorporate a game of chance like bingo within a show that has a serious message, but Creative Electric manage it well with a pair of camp, confident hosts. Eyes down, dabbers ready... The audience is playing, but there are also three 'contestants' who respond to each called number with a fact about themselves based on that number. It might be something that happened when they were that age, or something they bought for that amount of money, or the number of years they've been taking medication to treat their anxiety.

The audience can win prizes in the first two rounds, even as the information we learn about the contestants' characters gets more personal and more desperate. By the third round, it is clear that the point is to rage at the deadly impacts of the current government's austerity policies in the UK. A case here in Leith is mentioned, in which a local man died by suicide and the coroner said the trigger had been the decision of the Department of Work and Pensions to rule him fit for work, in spite of contrary assessments by his GP and psychologists.

Unlike Kaleider's Money, seen in Edinburgh in 2015, which asked the audience to agree on how to spend a pot of money, Desperation Bingo culminates in the opportunity for one audience member to win £82. The prize is the weekly benefits of the final contestant's mother, which she is at risk of losing now that her Disability Living Allowance has been replaced by an opportunity to apply for Personal Independence Payments. Last night the audience member declined, and it would be interesting to know whether anyone has ever, with an actor shouting 'You are Iain Duncan Smith; you are the Tory government', dared take the money.

- Michael Regnier

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis: 

Desperation Bingo - Creative Electric

The Money | Kaleider - British Council Edinburgh Showcase 2015

What Is Austerity? - The Economist 

GP's Report Was Ignored During Assessment - Pulse

Life and Death Under Austerity - Mosaic

Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

The Samaritans - How to Get Help

Hear Me Raw // LipSink Theatre

Hear Me Raw dissects the culture of ‘clean eating’ through a semi-fictionalised monologue based in the personal experience of its performer. Questioning the logic of whether raw smoothies and matcha provide any real solution to deeper emotional problems, Daniella Isaacs blends her real story of acute anxiety and distress with an imagined identity as a food blogger. As ‘Green Girl’, Isaacs evangelises about the need to remove dairy from your diet, replace caffeine and deny sugar, with all the zealotry of a convert. But the stability of this identity is disrupted by the interventions of concern from family, friends and clinical professionals. Isaacs’ clean eating obsession, watched over by the sinister figure of now-disgraced prophet Belle Gibson, grows into a recipe for distress, a diagnosis of Orthorexia Nervosa, and a familial rift.

Alongside its expose of the sometimes-worrying orthodoxy of clean eating adherents, and the modern obsession with demonstrable ‘wellness’, Hear Me Raw also reveals more general problems. Isaacs, graduating from drama school at the start of her story, embodies the anxieties of the modern twenty-something, particularly in the industries of theatre and performance. Her bullshit job typing up casting calls for ‘hot ex-girlfriends’ is a clear reference to the pressures of conforming to industry ideals, and to the unrealistic expectations for young performers that stifle the industry. Encouragingly, there seems to today be a greater awareness of the importance of diverse bodies in theatre, film and television, and a slowly building intolerance for retrograde casting practices. Here a young actor discusses the gulf between her expectation of fame and success and the realities of trying to get there, within the frame of a show that itself gestures towards that same frustrated expectation.

Isaacs suggests at the close that she had previously promised never to make an autobiographical show. Hear Me Raw is defiantly autobiographical, and is at its best when it abandons ‘acting’ in favour of personal testimony. Its central performance is not a dramatic role, but a sharing of a personal story, and a repudiation of the pressures that provoke the quarterlife crisis. 

- Lewis Church

This diagnosis is based on a preview performance at Hackney Showroom, London. Hear Me Raw runs throughout the Fringe at Underbelly George Square.

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Hear Me Raw

Orthorexia Nervosa

“Clean eating” How good is it for you?BBC News

Belle Gibson Court CaseGuardian

The Quarterlife Crisis - Guardian

Lady Parts (Sexist Casting Calls)

Drama Graduates One Year OnThe Stage

Frantic Assembly // Fatherland

A middle-aged man swings through the air, arms out flung, singing of the joy he gets from taking pride in his son.  

Another man, lit as if by flames, ascends a ladder and belts out a horrific tale of scraping up the remains of a burned man who had been ‘melted up the wall.’

***

Fatherland is a play about fathers. It’s also a play about making a play about fathers. Frantic Assembly - Scott Graham, Karl Hyde and Simon Stephens - went back to their hometowns of (respectively) Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport to gather stories about men and their relationships with their children. These stories appear verbatim in the play, retold by actors. Familiar tales of pubs, football matches and emotional inaccessibility are woven into scenes depicting the creators’ anxieties about the ethics of representation in verbatim theatre: is it democratising or exploitative?

Although men in general are still vastly overrepresented in theatre, it is unusual today to see a production of just men and of course, this is the point – men do not need more representation but masculinity itself needs to be put under the microscope. It was telling to hear how different audience members reacted to this – a young man spoke about how the masculine energy of the show never felt aggressive or threatening. Yet, for any women watching, the times where dozens of men circled the perimeter of the Royal Exchange seating area and banged on windows or shouted loudly out of sight, may have been received differently. Suddenly, extra actors would join the cast and a crowd of men would appear seemingly out of nowhere and burst out again, as though their energy couldn’t be contained, like the swell of a football crowd.

But what can theatre do to expose or challenge gender norms? Attitudes to fatherhood and traditional gender roles have shifted and relaxed in some respects (one character quips ‘I was a single dad before being a single dad was cool’) yet still society still does not allow men to freely express their emotions. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for males under 25 and men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women. The two scenes above exemplify moments where emotions that couldn’t be expressed in real life took flight (literally at times) on stage in song and dance. One song has the refrain ‘we don’t say the word’ – the word being ‘love’ which is left unsaid, hanging in the air. But through the song the silence around expression is itself given a voice.

Scott Graham writes in the programme that your hometown ‘is your father.’ If this is the case, each of the creators has somewhat rejected theirs for the apparently irresistible pull of London. Their hometowns are looked back on with a mixture of nostalgia and disdain, Simon Stephens’ character claiming to ‘forgive’ Stockport – a joke which lands particularly hard in Manchester of course and a Manchester fizzing with energy, pride and international recognition brought by the MIF.

Fatherland ends with a monologue of introspection and responsibility – a young father clasps a flower and tells how he apologised to his young daughter for swearing at her. ‘It’s never okay to do that’ he says. 

- Nathalie Wright

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Ethics of Verbatim Theatre

On the Under-Representation of Women in Theatre - Guardian

Fatherhood is Changing - The Conversation

Men Struggle to Express their Emotions- Huffington Post

Statistics on Single Fathers - Guardian

HOUSE AND AMONGST THE REEDS / Clean Break

HOUSE AND AMONGST THE REEDS / Clean Break

House is a play about a reunion in a British Nigerian family. Two sisters and their mother gather to mark a birthday – but it quickly becomes apparent that problems from the past, including mental health issues, mean any celebrations are premature. 

HOW IS UNCLE JOHN? / Creative Garage

HOW IS UNCLE JOHN? / Creative Garage

Abuse often comes shrouded in code. It comes in signs. Physical marks and distress, eyes that won’t meet yours, garbled speech, a sort of radical shrinking. There’s the less obvious, mental iterations. Rapid and sudden introversion, anxiety, depression: another sort of radical diminishing.

DROPPED / Gobsmacked Theatre Company

DROPPED / Gobsmacked Theatre Company

It’s an irony as old as time. Women may be seen as fit subjects for every conceivable violence, but they are not suitable for fight in war. From recent conflicts in Iraq, Afganistan and elsewhere, women's roles in the armed forces seem to extend little past the 2D. Physical, mental, societal violence is fit and fair game. But for a woman to fight in times of conflict has, until very recently, been seen as a frightening or morally disgusting transgression.  

BIT OF SUNSHINE / Bloody Deeds Productions in Association with Kilter Theatre

BIT OF SUNSHINE / Bloody Deeds Productions in Association with Kilter Theatre

How do you write anxiety? How do you act it? Two questions that present wildly unsatisfactory answers. There are the obvious ways, the tics, the coiled up physical tensions, the wild, unkempt hair, the wildly roving eyes. There’s the breathy, machine guy delivery of dialogue, or the visible signs of ‘nervous breakdown’. 

THREE JUMPERS / Unearthed Theatre

THREE JUMPERS / Unearthed Theatre

A council worker watches on as a young man takes a running jump to throw himself off a bridge. He pulls back at the last moment. The young man, elegantly dressed, starts to converse with the dry witted street sweeper and the tone shifts. Things are revealed to be more complicated, as things often are. 

SHARP EDGES / Amelia Sweetland

SHARP EDGES / Amelia Sweetland

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.

THE HOURS BEFORE WE WAKE / Tremolo Theatre

THE HOURS BEFORE WE WAKE / Tremolo Theatre

Judging by the extreme rarity of mobile phones, tablets, or even laptops on stage, the theatre world has barely caught up with the technological realities of the present, let alone the future. Tremolo Theatre’s The Hours Before I Wake doesn’t step too dramatically beyond the realities of the world we live in. But its commitment to representing a social media-rich, technologically-dense world makes it feel unusual - a sci-fi satire that’s close to home.

TRIGGER / Christeene

TRIGGER / Christeene

Christeene comes riding in on an inner pony, an imaginary animal representing self-esteem and unapologetic sexuality. Each night, working whilst a shedload of explosives explodes from Edinburgh castle above her, Christeene is at work to create the ambience of the kind of sex disco that you always wished you were invited to but are not quite convinced you’d know what to do at if you were. The inner-pony is a my-little metaphor of freedom, a call to abandon proprieties and niceties in favour of a new kind of holistic sexual transcendence.

CAMILLE / Kamila Klamut

CAMILLE / Kamila Klamut

History has painted Camille Claudin as 'Rodin's tragic lover' - a muse-turned-artist-turned-asylum patient, desperate and alone. But although her 10 year love affair with the master of French sculpture has defined her, she's increasingly recognised as an artist in her own right: the 70th anniversary of her death was marked with asignificant retrospective of her work at the Rodin Museum.

THE INTERFERENCE / Pepperdine University (USA)

THE INTERFERENCE / Pepperdine University (USA)

A series of high-profile cases has drawn attention to the idea that a ‘rape culture’ exists in American colleges - a micro-climate where sexually predatory behaviour is both normalised, and enabled by social codes around masculinity. And one, too, where victims are either disbelieved or blamed. Cork-based playwright Lynda Radley’s latest play is a 360 degree view of a female student Karen’s experience of reporting a campus rape, and seeking justice. But unlike most reporting on campus rapes, it takes her perspective, showing the serious mental health impact of her experiences while her college football star rapist Smith emerges unscathed.