Gods & Kings is the story of how, as a twenty-three year old Film Student, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Manic Depression but it is not just a bracingly honest autobiographical story about mental illness. It is a show about identity. This is crucial to the success of the play as it allows people to connect with the central character even if they have no understanding of Bipolar, or have no experience of mental illness. They can still empathize with the character’s dilemma because, throughout our lives, we have all had those moments where we question our identity and our purpose. And that opens the story up to a whole breadth of conversation.
At points this story is excruciatingly uncomfortable for me to share but on deciding to share my personal life in this way I knew the best way to make it mean something was to keep it authentic. There are moments from my life that I still can’t watch when they are portrayed on the stage because they will always be part of me, but I know the value in sharing them by the comments that people have made after seeing it. And it’s the brutal honesty that people truly connect to.
It was over two decades between being diagnosed and writing the play. As I will always be a service user I made the decision to write the play in direct address from the service user’s point of view so the audience can experience the world as I saw it, and still do. So every time I faced an editorial decision, I put myself in the audience, with the knowledge that I was a person when lost in my mental health journey, who would have been attracted to see this work. And so I just kept asking myself the question, “If I was sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, would this feel real? Would this feel authentic?” Because all too often I’ve had the experience of sitting in a theatre, or watching a film, or television drama, or listening to the radio, and because the writer has used mental illness as a device for the narrative, or as an intriguing character trait, there is a point where it becomes inconsistent, and I find that jarring. It makes me angry that someone hadn’t taken the time to research and portray a condition authentically because there is enough misinformation out there, a misunderstanding that I face every day of my life. I knew that even if a moment was painful and shameful, if it was honest, it needed to stay true because it is the only way that people are going to really learn what it’s like to live with a chronic mental illness.
Performed by Robert Bowman
Because I’d had an undiagnosed mental illness all my life at the time of my diagnosis I didn’t know what parts of me were symptoms and what were my personality traits. So when I left the psychiatrist’s office with the life changing decision of, “Do I take the Lithium, or don’t I take the Lithium?” I asked myself two crucial questions,” What part of me is me, and what part of me is my mental illness?” and “If I took the Lithium, what parts of me would remain and what parts would I lose?” because I was under the illusion that Lithium would take away my symptoms, and with it parts of my personality.
I didn’t know who would be left, when the drugs separated the condition from who I was. So that’s the dilemma at the heart of the play. And that’s the issue that people even without mental illness can relate to. When does taking away an illness or a condition start taking away the person as well?