I don’t normally wait before writing a review, especially being one of the last of the breed of “on night” newspaper reviewers who had to file copy immediately a show was finished.
But I was so moved, shaken, upset, knocked for six, by Gods and Kings I decided to let it all settle down for 24 hours. So here we are.
I wanted to leave within about 15 minutes of this roughly one-hour show. I kept looking at my watch. Not because I was bored, not because of the acting from Robert Bowman wasn’t strong, not that I didn’t appreciate the script of this monologue written, directed and producer by Paul Whittaker.
Rather, I was so smacked in the face by the veracity of what I was hearing and seeing that I found it almost unbearable.
I wants to keep joining in, wanting to say YES and say, Jesus, I have felt that, I have seen that – and I have never said a word to anyone about it nor heard another human being say what I had experienced and what I had thought, felt and still think and feel.
The story is that of a young man who leads a difficult childhood and adolescence and early student life until he is diagnosed with bi polar depression and is prescribed Lithium. Now, I have only experienced a bout of anxiety and depression caused by workplace bullying (a massively commonplace experience it turns out and where the remarkable GP told me I had been bullied, forbade me from going back to work and told me to take as much time off work as I thought I needed to get over the abuse and I just said, Nah, just a bit of stress. Of course, he was totally correct but I did go and see a counsellor (perfectly fine) and very, very stupidly went to see a specialist in a truly horrific mental health unit. I have never been so humiliated, isolated, frankly grubby and appalled by the health service and specialists. No one died of anxiety the doctor told me after giving me a prescription for medication which, after looking up what it did and the side effects, went straight into the bin.
I was fortunate and somehow worked out how to accept that the GP was correct, I had been bullied into an anxious state where I was ceasing to function and I had to rest, recover and move forward and if that black dog growled again, cope with it in my own way. But I also know not everyone can and that the state of mental health treatment is shocking. I also know that medication can be a good thing but also fear it is the opiate of an ever-increasing number of the people.
Back to the play.
It begins with the actor looking from behind one of the only props in the space, columns that are sometimes illuminated with varying shades of light and colour, and a chair plus a black and white photocopy of a mental health handout from St Cadock’s Hospital. Oh, and a pill. The lighting of Deryn Tudor’s deceptive simple set by Chris Illingworth traces the mood changes, the scenes, whether the grey of clinics, the brightness of self-realisation and direct communication with the audience, the cold spotlight of examination and a wild scene inside the mind when an epileptic scanner is imposed on the “patient’s” mind.
The pill is Lithium and the heart of the work is whether or not to take the pill, a matter of fact but horrifying explanation of what the medication is, what it does, its vast list of side effects, and, most importantly how it would change the character’s life for ever.
The telling of the path leading to the diagnosis and the prescribing of the metal drug is as meandering and mesmerising as it is disturbing and dark but in other ways glorious, brilliant and full of liberation
The dramatic monologue is paced and delivered with a transfixing intensity, perfect pacing and just the right amount of, well, exuberance and occasional anger, that this story requires and the rapport with the audience was extraordinary. There was humour although I cud not join in the laughter, event he nervous laughter from the audience, such was my eyes wide open shock at the veracity of the story telling, the absolute accuracy of the writing; not just descriptive (the beige, calming, colourless yet totally horrifying insides of the mental health unit that is void of signage that he attended, the well-meaning but chilling responses of people he spoke to, the language and way the psychiatric staff interact with him) but the near unbearable honesty of his thoughts.
The story confronts and exposes the frightening power and power abuse adults have with children (parents and teachers), the intricacy and difficulty of family relationships, the effect religion can and often has on young people, the experience of being different and, in this case, the relief in having the diagnosis that explains it all.
But does it and is it a relief?
The name of the work brings in the real power behind the writing. It is not just a Greek myth plonked into the 21st century or reworking of some classic transposed into a different era (as yawn inducing as it is common place). Rather, it is how the writer has, perhaps does, look at his life, his behaviour, his highs and his lows, his clashes with the rest of the world.
One of the most disturbing lines ask whether his diagnosis as manic-depressive (mental as he chooses to all it) explains his being outspoken, challenging the “controller of free thought”, fiercely logical and perhaps godlike, self-sacrificing. Rather than being eccentric he is now mental – but is he really a god? Was if those attributes of his illness is actually him?
I scribbled down surprise ending when I thought it was the ending but then there was another ending and I am not so sure know whether that was more of a surprise, having witnessed all that had gone before. I won’t reveal it (them) so you can go and see this show and judge.
I know people with a bipolar member of the family who they can only cope with when he takes the lithium and who have now washed their hands of him because he clearly does not always take the medication and gets into all sorts of problems and trouble. So there is also the story from the other side, the world of the normal people who cannot cope with the otherness and its consequences of this being different. However, we do not see the actual manifestations of the mania, those “highs” and apart from the episode with the epilepsy strobe and hiding from God there are no real episodes that would elicit such strong reactions from the “non-mental” people.
I have no experience of bi-polar mania and depression.
But having had a relatively short and unpleasant taste of the world of mental health treatment and people’s reactions, much of it resonated and was very accurate.
However, and I tread carefully here, so much else of this play rang true to me not because of the mental health aspect, but as a gay man growing up. The being different, the pressure to conform, the difficulty of relationships with family, the one sides struggle with heterosexual and heterosexual society, the feeling of being tolerated, the internal pressure to conform (why do gay people want to have marriage, adopt children, be the same, be detoxified and made safe and acceptable and accepted?). isn’t it – wasn’t it – being different, being freethinking, being on the outside, being always aware and analytical about the world around us, being logical and, well, free that made being gay worthwhile? Or, to use the line from the play, wasn’t it being “eccentric” that made us what we were? We weren’t “mental” we were just not “ordinary”. Lions in the wilderness or canaries in gilded cages…..thus do we too consider whether to take the metal pill?
How does this also square with so many people using drugs, whether illegal or good old alcohol or even extreme sporting activity, to achieve altered states, to achieve the highs that out storyteller is warned he will really miss should he choose to take the lithium?
By the way – I have no intention of getting married or adopting children.
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