Theatre for Life Youth Theatre is a Community Interest Company set up to support local performers (aged 14 – 25 years) in the Southampton area and is fully inclusive for young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, some disadvantaged circumstances and/or those with special educational needs. The Company’s ethos is “to create inspiring and challenging theatre that is innovative and collaborative, whilst building confidence and performance skills.”
With that in mind, Theatre For Life set about to devise a piece of interactive theatre that is hard hitting and highly topical – an exploration of mental health issues and ways in which to help an individual cope with them (especially relevant with the concerns that have been recently raised about mental wellbeing surrounding reality TV programmes). The programme notes explained the collective creative process that the group underwent, working with Heads Up and Solent Mind, a drama therapist, a professional dance artist, other professionals and a Mental Health and Wellbeing Mentor who works at Equity UK. The depth of research used contributed to the actors learning to use these creative tools and therapeutic practices in drama and music in order to build a powerful piece of theatre about Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Self Harm that is informative, full of passion, commitment, focus, drive and ultimately encouragement.
It seems churlish to single out any individuals from such a strong cohesive ensemble production, especially when each have a moment to shine individually as well as collectively, but special mention should be made for those depicting these central themes so convincingly and compellingly: Amara Darbyshire (Self Harming/BDD), Elle Stokes (Anxiety), Grace Aluko (Bipolar), Macy Risden (Body Image) and Joe Green (Anorexia). It is particularly encouraging to note that a boy was chosen as the person affected here by anorexia, when this devastating body image condition affects a considerable number of young boys who are just as vulnerable and susceptible to the forces of social media and peer pressure as girls, which is rarely recognised.
Communication is 93% non verbal and each individual clearly learnt so much from dance artist Luke Brown about how to use movement to communicate; the amount of trust within the group is also evident as individual movements seamlessly transition to total synchronicity, with sharpness and faultless timing. Visual metaphors and imagery, careful use of illuminated cubes and special lighting effects are used brilliantly to represent the brainwaves and neurophysical impulses behind each of the mental health issues, while the passion and commitment from each performer brought the personal and emotional aspects of each illness vividly to life with great authenticity.
If anything, this authenticity makes it very uncomfortable to watch at times and there were a number of times during the performance tonight when individual members of the audience, clearly affected by what they were witnessing, had to step out of the Studio for a few moments; thanks should be expressed at this point for the duty of care that the Company have clearly considered to both the audience members and their cast as MIND personnel were available for support, with a personal note that any member of the audience silently affected by what they have witnessed here should seek help and support for themselves, too.
But the production is not all downbeat with the suffering from mental health problems; quite the reverse. Besides the provocative aspects of each illness vividly depicted, the ‘therapists’ provide facts about each condition and then share exercises and coping strategies that bring help and hope to each of the characters affected, shared with the audience to be taken away with them. Of course, recovery from mental health problems is not so cliched as to be resolved simply and quickly, but recovery IS possible in time with the right help and support, and the personal gratitudes expressed at the end are uplifting and heartwarming.
Scriptwriter and Director Michelle Smith has overseen a superb production and should be rightly proud of each member of her cast for the quality of the performances seen at NST City and the production elements that combined to create this memorable play. It is a shame that it was performed for such a small number of people, but the intimate venue of the NST City Studio rather than Main Stage means that the production can be truly interactive between cast and audience, and this is never felt more than during the ‘therapists’ directly encouraging the audience members to join in Mindfulness exercises as means to cope with the various mental health difficulties.
It could be argued that the purpose of theatre is to entertain, educate, enlighten and elicit emotions; Silent Mind doesn’t exactly entertain (and with this subject matter, probably shouldn’t!), but it is a powerful vehicle that is brilliantly devised and performed to epitomise the remaining aspects with maximum effect. It is simply captivating, engaging and poignantly absorbing.