Writer and lead role, Olivia Winteringham says she was inspired to write this play because she loves love stories. Her idea of a love story, however, is an unconventional one. Or perhaps you could call it a ‘conventional’ one, seeing as she chooses to explore the more real parts of love; the monotonous parts, the tough, sad and lonely parts. This love story is about betrayal, shown through the eyes of someone whose understanding of the world around them is betrayed by their state of mind, a woman named Lenni.
As part of the Birmingham Arts and Mental Health Festival (BEDLAM), Delightful explores the lives of those affected by mental health issues, both directly and indirectly. Watching a video from Winteringham about the show before I attended, she said that the story of Lenni would be told through different characters that she encounters in her life. Upon entering the space, audience members were supplied with a set of headphones, told it would be clear when to put them on and not told what they were for. It would later become known that the ‘different characters’ Winteringham was referring to were the voices inside Lenni’s head, and through these headphones the audience would learn about Lenni and experience what she did in a truthful and utterly haunting way.
The cast was formed of just two actors, Winteringham herself who played Lenni, and Megan McCormick who played Lenni’s younger sister Ella. Their performances were outstanding; Winteringham realistically embodied the exterior of confusion and fear that someone who was hearing multiple voices inside their head would have, using nervous, frantic movements. She evoked a real innocence to the character with wide eyes and softly spoken words as we watched Lenni try desperately to make sense of what was real and what wasn’t. McCormick, as Ella, produced some incredibly natural performances. A long monologue from her opened the show as she introduced her sister Lenni to the audience from her point of view, and at times it seemed so conversational and unrehearsed that you forgot you were watching a play. A young actress, at one point she dropped a line, but had no problem picking up the next one and moving on as if it hadn’t happened.
McCormick also took on the role of the ‘voices’, which morphed between different roles. Sometimes they represented Ella herself, or other members of their family, or doctors, and often they represented different vocalisations of Lenni’s conscience, both the supportive voices and (mostly) the antagonistic and destructive ones. Sound designer Iain Armstrong described how the voice recording worked in the post-show discussion. For the majority of the performance, the audience were instructed to have their headphones on. Lenni told us her side of the story through a body mic which projected her voice through speakers, and her internal voices could be heard throughout closely in our ears, with the narrative consisting almost wholly of a duologue between Lenni and her voices. Through the headphones, the audience would hear a mix of both pre-recorded voices and a live voice, performed backstage by McCormick. The voices were recorded using a binaural technique, where sound is recorded in two microphones and arranged to create a three-dimensional stereo sound sensation for the listener. The background voices were layered and varied, some whispering, some shouting, altogether creating a consistent hum of talk, therefore making them entirely immersive and inescapable. The primary voice and the main line of direct narrative with Lenni on-stage was performed live by McCormick to a dummy head representing Winteringham’s character backstage. This meant that McCormick could perform off-stage with the same movements and vocal range that she would on-stage, leading to further impressive performances from her, even though she could not be seen.
Set and lighting designer Ben Pacey set up the space simply, using a raked stage fitted with wooden chairs placed evenly around the space, all facing different directions. The tilt of both the stage and the chairs added to the uneasy atmosphere this play exuded and perhaps the position of these as ‘off-balance’ was representative of Lenni’s state of mind.
With this static set, director Nick Walker made choices which utilised the many different levels available to bring the text to life physically in a creative way; a moment which sticks in my mind being when Lenni was imagining she was being poked at by a nurse and as she tried to ‘get away’ she stood on the chairs, hopping between them one by one as she frantically rejected the nurse’s advances. Interestingly, Walker described the idea in the discussion that navigating through a tilted stage full of haphazardly placed chairs might be an awful lot like navigating through the day for someone who hears voices. Pacey said he let his lighting be a product of the developing script, and used quick flashes of light and sudden flashes to blackout at moments when the increasingly loud and volatile voices would reach a crescendo in Lenni’s mind. This created moments that looked similar to the overheating of a bulb which flickers then burns out, as if Lenni’s mind was being overheated by the never-ending cycle of voices.
The unfolding of Lenni’s life in Delightful took some surprising twists and turns with some extremely dark themes that seemed to shock the audience. Some points of the story were never completely explained which left some feeling confused – perhaps because we were hearing the story from Lenni, and somewhat as Lenni, this may have been the aim. If she couldn’t make sense of exactly what had happened then the audience, with full access to her mind for a little while, wouldn’t be able to either.
The show’s work with Birmingham Mind and discussions with real voice-hearers when developing the script inspired most of the voices’ design, meaning the audience received a terrifyingly realistic experience. A completely innovative and revealing way to learn about mental health, we both learned about Lenni’s life and her experiences, and felt as if we were experiencing a great deal of it ourselves, even if just for an hour. With one of BEDLAM’s aims being to raise awareness about mental health, it’s safe to say they achieved it. Experiencing Lenni’s state of mind for 50 minutes was an unnerving and stressful experience, one can only imagine the difficulty of living with it always.