Talking Theatre – Mental health in the modern world

Back once again with further theatre chat. A whole bunch of plays in this podcast episode. I was particularly engaged this week with People, Places and Things (National) and Song From Far Away (Young Vic), which by chance I had booked within days of each other and that turned out to compliment each other perfectly. It is unusual to see two new plays of such high quality close together, and even rarer when they cover very similar ground. Both explore issues related to people who are experiencing a crisis event; yet how the plays unfold due to the nature of the crisis and the personality of the person in crisis is absolutely fascinating. They are performed with total commitment and great emotional honesty by two fantastic actors (Denise Gough and Eelco Smits), and are written and produced with a rare perceptiveness.

I must also confess an additional interest in both these plays, as I have recently spent almost a year and half looking into many of the issues that surround people in crisis, and (plug alert!!) have just written a report on crisis care in England (which you can find here). However when I booked the tickets I didn’t know what either play was about, and was knocked sideways by how accurately the events on stage had reflected the experiences people had shared with me.

You can hear my further reflections, and those of my trusty companions on the podcast – brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast. The full bill contains reviews of Photograph 51, Casa Valentina, People, Places & Things and Song From Far Away.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

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And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

People, Place and Things – National Theatre, until 04 November 2015 (Tickets)

Event theatre is a curious phenomenon that is hard to predict and can emerge from a number of paths. Most often it is due to an attachment of a star name that turns a popular play into a must see; the Cumberbatch Hamlet being an extreme examples of this. Sometimes, such as with Jerusalem or Constellations, word-of-mouth and press reviews suddenly turn an unknown new play into the thing people are queuing round the block for. Most gratifyingly is when it assigned to a theatre company on the basis of their hard PPT Photo by Johan Perssongraft built over many years; Complicite gained this status, and surely Headlong have now joined their ranks. Among those versed in theatre, Headlong are a by-word for theatre that promises endless invention built on energetic staging working in harmony with high class visuals.

People, Places and Things is without doubt pure event theatre – it matches a theatre company that can sell-out a show before it opens with a lead performance that is rightly being described as career-making. You leave the theatre feeling that you have seen a very special production, with an exhilaratingly powerhouse piece of acting from Denise Gough at its heart. It is the highlight of Rufus Norris’ early tenure at the National, and a production that reminds you how truly invigorating theatre can be.

Denise Gough in People Places and Things Photo Johan PerssonBy pure chance I had seen it within days of seeing the devastatingly powerful Song From Far Away at the Young Vic. They work as superb companion pieces, and anyone who sees both cannot help but reflect on what they tell us about the mental outlook and wellbeing of the younger generations in affluent, western societies.

Both cover individuals at the point of crisis, but touch on different ends of the spectrum. In Stephens’ play, Willem is unable to articulate his need for help and his crisis reaches a more acute phase as he exists outside of supportive systems. In Duncan Macmillan’s play, we have Emma (or possibly we do, even her name remains ambiguous), another white, privileged and mainly unsympathetic character.

However, unlike Willem, she is vocal and able to recognise that there is a point where she must ask for help. Yet even at that this stage she uses her facility with language to keep people at a distance; she uses words as a defence mechanism to keep people away from her true self. Her extrovert nature is the polar opposite to Willem’s introvert, but ultimately her personality finds her unable to find ways of expressing herself in order to avert a significant crisis.

Denise Gough’s performance as Emma has drawn deserved plaudits. Her role in Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb hinted at her vast potential, and was one of the performances of the year. It was fluid, totally unselfconscious and demonstrated an assured facility for portraying characters on the edge of mania. She brings this and much more to Emma.

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