‘Hearing Things’, which performed twice in a single day, lacerates the issue of treating mental health in both the young and old.
Location: The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Date: Saturday 21st October 2017, 8pm, Directed by Philip Osment, produced by ‘Playing ON’.
This review is written off the back of an interview I gave for the weekly Arts Show last Monday. It was a privilege to be able to discuss what I had seen a couple of evenings before at The Birmingham Rep, the same venue as my first review. This meant I was familiar with the stage and audience space, which tends to create a feeling of intimacy and disillusionment as we are so close to the actors. The piece was performed on the first weekend of the BEDLAM Arts and Mental Health Festival, and deserves to be shown elsewhere as it had just two audiences to perform for on one day.
Three actors entered the space to begin with and didn’t exit until the first bow. The context was established immediately with the recorded sound of sea waves and cries of seagulls. All the set and props were on display as the audience entered the auditorium, so I labelled the style as Brechtian and metatheatrical. People in the radio studio had no idea what I meant by this; the setup made us more aware that it was a constructed piece of theatre we were about to see. At first, I wondered what each of the characters’ backstories were. One was building a sandcastle, another lying on their back while the third scuttled around exuberantly with a football. It was when they started to acknowledge and interact with one another that I gained a sense of their identities. What proved most challenging for any spectator though would have been the abrupt transitions in character multi-role. I discovered this when the actor playing a young boy became a disgruntled father being pestered by his son. It was the latter of these who served as the protagonist: a worn and troubled psychiatrist, affected by the illnesses of his mentally ill patients.
The theme, of course, that prevailed throughout was mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, that’s what the BEDLAM organisers wanted to promote so audiences could become more aware of it in current society. We were introduced to several different scenes, each of which only contained two of the actors. The ‘surplus’ one would sit at the side perhaps and present a prop – a glass of wine for example – to another cast member. The psychiatrist, named Nicholas, featured in both his home and working environment. A notable scene was when his wife (a vicar) read a questionnaire for him to answer based on his feelings towards patients. Here his discontent and frustration towards his working position was really brought to light. His mood was also underpinned by the hefty quantity of alcohol consumed as well as strong language. In contrast, he appeared calm and temperate when in conversation with insane patients. The first of these could be identified as a sufferer of bipolar disorder; she was heavily depressed, failing to see her purpose in the world, although there was mention of her being in a relationship. The psychiatrist continued to aggravate her by constantly asking questions such as what other people thought of her. This allowed her to withdraw from her own damaging thoughts and instead consider the minds of other people. Being an early segment of the piece, she was a long way from recovery, but seemed inspired to abide by the medication and advice prescribed to her.
Meanwhile, I was particularly impressed with a scene that surrounded a young Ghanaian boy called Innocent (“of what?” – one rare moment of humour). This is where the ‘Hearing Things’ title was foregrounded. He claimed to hear a ‘voice’ in his head, which told him he would “never see [his] sister again.” The way in which this was staged was original and didn’t require any stage technologies. The female cast member simply walked around the perimeter of the stage and repeated these taunts, in a solemn tone. This perhaps made the presentation of a ‘psychological demon’ more authentic than a sound recording, and also made full use of every actor on stage. Later on in the piece, Innocent has grown up into a mature man who still suffers from symptoms of schizophrenia. He makes absurd claims that he is being monitored by the FBI and his father was the instigator of infamous terrorist attacks. These radical delusions are aided by a writing club he attends to free his imagination and take on the mind-set of other people, such as Marvin Gaye.
The main sources of light were floodlights, to fill large areas of the stage, as well as par cans with barn doors to direct the light over a specific area. This was most effective for when the female patient, who had recently slipped into the depths of her illness again (she was not given a depo to prolong her treatment), tragically committed suicide amidst the sound of an approaching train. A signifier for this was the fact that she stepped out of the light and into darkness. Additionally, more subtle changes of light accompanied other scene transitions. For instance, the psychiatrist tried to calm his patient’s growing anger. All of a sudden, he became a child (but the same character) and leapt into his father’s arms to demonstrate he had just been saved from a storm surge. These hazy changes caused some audience members to whisper to one another about who had turned into who. For this reason, I’ll change what I said in the radio interview about the acting style being naturalistic. Rather, I thought the piece conformed to realism because the character behaviour and interaction appeared believable, although structurally it was more high-brow and non-linear. With all this considered, this moment in the action implied how even healthy people like the psychiatrist can suffer to a similar extent to ill patients.
Given the actors were always present in the stage space, so were the set and props. Understandably, the piece wouldn’t have had a substantial budget to work with. Two large sheets of hemp material were laid down and stuck together with what must have been black gaffer tape. Sand was scattered around the perimeter of these cloths to mark out the beach setting. Props were usually placed here, so that there was plenty of proximity inside for the actors to work with. Each had a chair to sit on; other times one might curl up or kneel, depending on their state of mind. For example, the final piece of action refers to a moment at the beginning of the piece, to elicit the use of a circular narrative. The character Innocent, questions why the psychiatrist has a “monkey on [his] back”. To begin with, this appeared a foolish thing to say, but later on the actress playing Innocent’s mother, turned into a monkey and climbed onto the back of Nicholas. This was certainly an appropriate way to end; it opened the audiences’ understanding to how mentally ill people can mistakenly perceive the world.
There were, naturally, some socio-political undertones which ran throughout. Firstly, Nicholas’ father berated his son for having worked hard to attain a first class degree at Oxford, only to have become stressed and dissatisfied in his occupation as a psychiatrist. Moreover, this same actor was especially adept at changing his accent, from a Received London to a Ghanaian one. This came when he changed characters, and I noted here the use of colour-blind casting. Here the director(s) paid no attention to the fact that a black actor played a white character and in doing so, raised a political point towards the casting of actors depending on their race. Hence, multi-role was so effective because it negated race; equally, a white actress took on the role of a black character. Furthermore, the dialogue couldn’t have been clearer in expressing controversy currently surrounding the NHS. Nicholas gave a statistic that just 10% of funding from the service went into mental health, to which his father replied: “That’s not bad, is it?” When all other aspects of health are considered, the percentage may have been even lower. Yet in today’s age when mental health is becoming a more prominent issue as people are being far more open, it’s disconcerting that the NHS is edging towards privatisation.
As a whole, the piece demonstrated how patients could recover by taking medication and following advice given to them by institutions. But this optimism only reached a certain point; there was an emphasis on mental illness having a stigma and being inescapable to those who suffered from it. For this reason, none of the characters affected managed to reach their objectives: being discharged, living in good health or making the right medical choices. Several characters (one for each actor) failed to realise how long-term the road to mental health recovery can be.