Edinburgh Fringe 2014
This is a perspective-changing, immersive, site-specific experience. A show unlike any you could see at the Fringe. Mental strips down the walls of performance and audience, mental health and society, individual and the public, in a gentle and humane way.
Mental’s vague program description and the secret venue shroud the show with the unknown before you’ve gotten there. As an audience we want to know who the performer is, what they’ve done, and what consumable and desirable thing the show is going to provide us. The position of an audience member is being probed, as well as the desire to be passively entertained. It challenges you to engage empathetically in a way that is beyond the precedent in theatre.
One hesitates to even say, “show.” It is a man witnessing his story in such a real, open, and compassionate way, it doesn’t feel like anything less than visiting the intimate bedroom of someone you care about. It is still a performance work, but feels a far cry from anything else you could see on the Fringe. It takes up and re-interprets every aspect of theatre performance with an aim to heal distance. From simply entering the performance venue, and emerging again when it finished. But especially how the audience was positioned with the performer – known under the name The Vacuum Cleaner he uses in his activist work, but introducing himself as James.
The experience of being brought unaware to the secret location brought us into his world. The audience initially gathers in the Pleasance Courtyard under a sign held up saying “Mental”, until groups of four to five were sent in cabs through Edinburgh to the venue. Entering first into an antechamber-like room with tea and carrot cake, we are guided into a secluded bedroom with playing music, and where a form is lying under the duvet. We settle ourselves on the pillows on the floor around him. It seems to be a lesson in environments, the effect certain spaces can have, and security you feel in them. When he tells his story of some of the harshest emotional and physical spaces he’s had to inhabit, he illustrates the idea that this person with borderline disorder before us, inhabits another emotional space within this environment of comfort. That there are some people, who, within the world we share, are living and suffering in a totally different world too.
The audience is being taken care of, nurtured in this comforting environment, an extraordinary act of empathy and warmth. He doesn’t lose the effect of this under the steam of his own message, or once give the impression that this compassion is distinct from the show’s writing. As he begins to talk about his struggles in and out of mental health institutions, and it feels as if after the introduction to the space and this person the “performance” has now begun, he cuts himself short suddenly. Looking directly at us gathered before him, he says in such a caring tone of voice that it comes as a shock to an anonymous audience of a theatre show, “I’m going to be talking a lot about suicide, and I know that can be very difficult. But I want to say to you that all it is, is your pain outweighing your ability to cope, and there is nothing wrong or unnatural about that.”
We encounter not a performance, but a human being, and are brought into an awareness of how in art the audience consumes without a larger input. The staging of the show, amplifying and deepening the content of James’ story, challenges how we interact with works of theatre. Artists create and audiences receive, and the process often ends there. At the beginning he emerges from under the covers after we have been listening to him whisper encouragements to himself to get on with it despite his anxiety. This is the first sign that this story he tells is carefully devised for the stage to reveal a human being beyond consumption or rejection. Once he greets the audience, he pulls out several collections of files from underneath the covers – his medical, police, and government intelligence files. He reads lines through a microphone from reports projected against the wall. He then drops the microphone and talks to the audience, telling us the story behind those few typed lines. They are used as props to witness his story, dramatizing the humanity being removed, as he becomes part of the system, a mental health spectacle, or a political threat.
Every aspect of this show is powerfully devised to break down the usual lines of performance and art, building community with the audience. We see the person behind the mental health diagnosis, the human being through the performance, and are inspired to search for that beyond this show, this intimate bedroom.