by Michael Regnier
Just as there are trends in fashion, architecture and the arts, so science goes through periods where one field rises above the others for a time. It finds a place in the wider culture, and becomes the go-to framework for explaining just about anything. Neuroscience had an early dash - in the mid-19th century many thoughtful people thought this burgeoning science of the brain would reveal everything there was to know about human behaviour. It was not to be.
In the early 20th century, Freudian psychoanalysis took over the popular imagination, driving the plot of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), for example, complete with a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí. Later, it was the turn of genetics, culminating in the Human Genome Project, which many thoughtful people again thought would reveal everything there was to know about human behaviour. Again, it was not to be.
Genetics remains a fundamental part of understanding life, but for the past few years, neuroscience seems to have again taken centre stage as our popular explainer of choice. There’s even a Human Connectome Project, mapping every cell, synapse and connection in our heads. For most of us, however, the lens of neuroscience has most usually been evident in lurid images accompanying news reports of MRI brain-scanning studies. Are men and women different? Let’s scan them. Why do teenagers take risks? Scan. What is love? Scan. Does my dog really love me? Scan the dog.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether these scans reveal anything new (it might be more remarkable if we didn’t see brain differences associated with physical and behavioural differences), does this approach suggest that your brain defines you? Controls you, even? And does that mean it is not really part of ‘you’? The brain does seem to get pitched as something separate, something the rest of you is either with or against, and this tension has been explored in research studies and in works of art.
Mick Gordon’s 2005 play On Ego, a production of which was diagnosed for The Sick of the Fringe in 2016, draws explicitly on neuroscience. It concerns a time-travelling neurologist who gets stuck in a philosophical dilemma. His wife, meanwhile, is experiencing a loss of words, memories and identity because of a brain tumour. Both characters offer perspectives on the role of the brain in selfhood and selfishness, but the show starts with the scientist lecturing the audience, covering the academic groundwork we perhaps need in order to appreciate the action to follow.
The staged lecture has become a common trope in plays dealing with science, and while it can be abused as an easy way to try and incorporate ‘the science bit’, it can also be done effectively and elegantly as in this case. However, a consequence in On Ego is that it privileges the ‘expert’ when it is a ‘non-expert’ character who is experiencing the most dramatic tension between brain and body. But the voice of experience brings its own expertise. Even if we feel we are living in the gap between body and brain, we nevertheless somehow hold all the parts of ourselves together, and I think we generally want to know how we each manage to do that. This is where questions about the relationship between us and our brains become intensely personal. If your brain controls you, what happens when it doesn’t do its job properly? Is it up to you to ‘take back control’?
Performances dealing with mental health often mine that same tension between the brain and the body it purports to control. Spearhead Theatre’s production of Joe Penhall’s 1994 play Some Voicesat the 2016 Fringe reminded us that powerful dramas based around experiences of mental health conditions have been around for a while. The play was originally a topical critique of the UK’s policy to shift further away from institutional care towards care in the community, and the risks to which that exposed many people with mental illnesses. It still resonates today as a portrayal of a young man searching for a safe place in society. But whereas in the past, specific mental health conditions might have been present in the subtext, I think as we continue to chip away at the stigmas around mental illness, we will see more plays dealing with these issues more overtly.
New shows at the Fringe last year critiqued different aspects of mental healthcare. The Magnetic Diaries was based on the story of Madame Bovary, with Emma now receiving transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy to treat her severe depression. The treatment seems to work, until she returns home and back into her downward spiral. In Empty Beds, we saw how sending people hundreds of miles away for treatment can be devastating for them and their families.
We also heard experiences of mental health first-hand as performers shared their own stories - a rising trend. Some of these shows were upfront about advocating for better understanding and support. In Sacre Blue, Zoe Murtagh told us about her anxiety and how cognitive behavioural therapy helps her to cope better with it; she even demonstrated the breathing techniques she uses. Other performers challenged the language and imagery generally used to negotiate mental health. In Declaration, Sarah Emmott used a pair of red shoes as a metaphor to show the impact of ADHD on her daily life, while Annie Siddons introduced us to a flatulent walrus that represented her suffocating loneliness in How (Not) to Live in Suburbia.
In the Times Literary Supplement recently, Brian Dillon wrote that one of the vexations of depression is “a feeling of being made to live, and express oneself, wholly in cliche”. Winston Churchill described his depression as a black dog, but his dog has been so widely appropriated since that it has lost almost any sense of monstrous horror that he might have been trying to convey. Brigitte Aphrodite - performing at The Sick of the Fringe London - has a black dog too, but hers is beautiful and called Creshendorious. Her show, My Beautiful Black Dog, explores depression with joy, humour and hope rather than horror and despair.
Different language will encourage different stories. In The Castle Builder, which was in Edinburgh and will also be in London in February, Kid Carpet and Vic Llewellyn tell the stories of people who created extraordinary structures while living in psychiatric institutions, often working alone and in secret. Such works are termed “outsider art” in English – defined again by separation, but in this case it is a physical separation from society as well as any possible internal separation between body and brain. What would it take to bring the “outsiders” in? Or can we instead try to find our way outside to meet them?
Perhaps the most revolutionary plays about mental health in Edinburgh last year were the ones in which it reached a level of almost banality. In Bit of Sunshine, while the extremes of anxiety were on stage - tics, physical tension, unkempt hair and wild eyes - there was also a place for its less obvious, everyday manifestations. In House, one of the characters had a mental health issue in their past but was now being treated successfully: it was just another facet of her character. When mental health can be part of a drama without being the focus, we will know we have reached a point of acceptance. A point where art and science are integrated on stage, and the brain and body are not so estranged as a result.