With Old Vic New Voices’ community musical EPIDEMIC exploring the potentially tricky subject of mental health on stage this week, our theatre editor takes a look at madness and the medium…
I come from a long, noble line of mad women. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and neurosis are handed down - along with a love of Tupperware, addiction to tea and the ability to spot a winning horse - like heirlooms.
So, it is of little surprise that I ended up writing one of my final university essays about motherhood and madness, drawing on the work of writers and dramatists from Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing to Sarah Kane and Shakespeare.
You see, there’s just nothing more interesting, more inherently dramatic and more intriguing than our tenuous relationship with sanity. We all, at some time and to some extent, show symptoms of mental illness; whether it’s checking that the door is locked six times before going on holiday or bursting into tears and not knowing why you’re crying, punching a wall to relieve tension or worrying that someone across the room is bitching about you.
Mental illness is also, in a world of supposed rules, entirely subjective. What defines the sane from the insane is gossamer thin and almost by definition impossible to identify in yourself. I have had times in my life where I have felt sane, and others when I have not; it is tricky for anyone to tell the one from the other.
Which is why I am so pleased that OVNV’s big community production this year is bringing the whole messy, shifting, awkward and at times hilarious subject of mental health into the light. And not just through a straight drama after all – this, my friends, is a musical.
Through witty, powerful and rousing songs, the cast of EPIDEMIC – made up of a huge cross section of the local community – touch on several aspects on mental health in an accessible and entertaining way. Winston Churchill may have coined the phrase “black dog” for that terrible, encroaching fear as you feel yourself slipping into a depressive period, but it was the EPIDEMIC chorus about the familiar beast, during the 24 Hour Plays interval, that moved me to tears.
There are many traditional plays that address mental illness: Blue/Orange, The Madness of George III, 4:48 Psychosis, Hamlet, Metamorphosis, The Wonderful World of Dissocia and IdeasTap member Gareth Jandrell’s brilliant Pure O, to name but a sprinkling from the top of my head. And ruddy good they are, too.
But, really, it’s no surprise that madness is such a rich creative seam. If the purpose of theatre is to explore our humanity, then where better to act out our insecurity that we are “losing it”? By putting mental illness on stage, we allow ourselves to look from the outside onto something more usually explored from the inside. Showing madness on stage is, for many, the best way to stay sane.
So, hooray for madness. Hooray for the millions of us who dance along the knife-edge of sanity. Hooray for all the playwrights, actors, directors and producers who bring us plays that show how our differences are what make us normal. Hooray, in short, for making a drama out of a crisis.
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Illustration by Narcsville.
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