Obsessive variations on a Fringe theme
- Drip Feed at Project Arts Centre
- Seahorse at the Project
- Shame at the Peacock
- Infinity at Smock Alley
There are very different projections of mental health at the Fringe, writes Emer O'Kelly
Brenda is 34 years old; she's gay (and perfectly well adjusted about it); and thinks Cork is a great place to live, especially on a Saturday night. She has a gorgeous girlfriend called Olivia, and an equally gorgeous best friend called Veronica. And her big sister Rita isn't half bad either.
That's how Drip Feed begins, as written and performed by Karen Cogan, produced by Fishamble and the London Soho Theatre, and playing at Project (prior to Soho).
But things change as a drip feed of information and a hideous world of misery, dysfunction and desperate fantasy emerges. There's Sam (alias Sadie), artist, and dangerously close to Olivia; there are blackouts, prowlings, family disruption, bloodied faces and vomit-filthied beds. There are mental hospitals and stalkers. In between, of course, there's fun: like the lesbian poetry group Brenda and Veronica attend where the leader reads lines like "I want to wear you on my fist like a shield".
But as the play develops in Cogan's wickedly funny and clever writing and stunning performance, we find that poor Brenda has no shield: she will never go to Paris. She's "just part of the Cork furniture and that's it", as Sam flings at her.
The magic of this remarkable fantasy play lies in its structure: the author manufactures a wildly comic presence and scenario to wrap around deep tragedy. And it makes its point better and more effectively than a dozen scenarios that wallow in victimhood and emotional self-flagellation.
It's directed by Oonagh Murphy, designed by Anna Reid and lit by Jess Bernberg. For my money it's the runaway success of the Fringe Festival; certainly of what I've managed to see.
Mara's pregnant; by accident; but she likes things the way they were before: great sex, great fun, madly in love with Ian but with no commitment.
That's the premise of Seahorse, written and performed by Christiane O'Mahony (at Project), and hung on the somewhat peripheral premise that Mara thinks it would be great to be a seahorse, since in their world the males have the babies.
Running through how she got to this point, there's a fair amount of ironic self-deprecation which helps with the humour. But then she gets down to how she likes herself, her life, and the way things are, and the second half becomes a lot less gripping in its tired iteration of feminist self-absorption and "my way or no way" (so stridently objected to when it rears its head in the male psyche).
The seahorse motif does allow for elegant visual representation in Brian Mitchell's set design and lighting, and gives the piece thematic weight which the scripting lacks. But O'Mahony punctuates it all with a blow-by-blow account of making a seafood tagine preparatory to breaking the pregnancy news. A recipe book would be handier than a play in such circumstances. So Seahorse is over-written and too long. Davey Kelleher directs.
Pom Boyd's and Sean Millar's Shame (at the Peacock) belongs in the category of modern life/mental health that believes in "celebrating" everyone for everything.
The premise in this three woman (Boyd, Sarah Kinlen and Kim V. Porcelli) plus sole male (Millar) rock chick ensemble is the autobiographical fact that Boyd's parents had a rough time of it: her father mentally ill for much of his life, her mother spiralling downwards from "extreme sadness" to join him. We hear of it through Boyd's own stage experiences as a young adult including an appearance in a stand-up competition on The Late Late Show in 1991, which is shown in video, in full, but minus the sound.
At that time she was terrified it was awful; nowadays she thinks it was fine. (Apparently, the motif of her youth was "I can't do anything.")
Also shown (several times) is part of a 1948 film in which her mother starred as a 20-year-old. Boyd heard about it throughout her life, saw it only recently, and is now celebrating her mother for the "true artist" she was… because her mother was always ashamed of a moment in it.
Unfortunately, from the evidence, her mother had it right.
And if her parents' illnesses cast a shadow over her youth, at least they loved her, as evidenced by a projection of an adoring good luck message from them.
The protagonist (Neasa Matthews) in Infinity draws chalk circles on the ground. Talks about waving your hand at someone in the street, "sending it out so far it's impossible to recover it". Says she's been doing interviews, mostly with her family, about what you do to avoid people. Tells the audience she's terrified of doing the show. Says she used to think of herself as a straight line. That infinity is an infinite number of things.
Then she gets into a hexagonal black box with flashing lights and goes into space, keeping a log that begins roughly around 2077 and goes on for years, as she mutters messages and ruminations and punches an imaginary computer keyboard.
Then she gets out and into a spacesuit (designed by Naomi Faughnan) and becomes even more incomprehensible as she intones the necessity of trying for the source through the black hole.
The script is delivered in falsely self-deprecating half-sentences, and there's clear problems with the clarity of diction and projection (even in recorded inserts).
"What if I could begin now?" she asks towards the end. Towards the beginning she says "I'm talking too much." She got that right.
What Matthews didn't manage in her role as writer was to make in any way clear that this was apparently supposed to be about depression/suicide.
Directed by Eoghan Carrick, Infinity is at Smock Alley Black Box.