It’s always a difficult moment when the “customer under a train” announcement is made on the Underground. There’s a discomfort that arises not merely from the event itself, but also the inevitable reactions of those around you. You’d hope there’d be something other than the rumblings of complaint, impatient exhales or general indifference. “Oh, you’re kidding me!”, I heard once, and on another occasion there was laughter too. It’s understandable, I suppose, that a person in crisis, past help now, is ultimately reduced to an inconvenience rather than a tragedy. Still, it always prompts challenging thoughts on what often seems like the reality of our collective response to mental health issues: total avoidance, derisive dismissal or simply silence.
It was a late night conversation about their own experience of mental health issues between two students that triggered initial work on Snap Out of It!, an ambitious and laudable project from Strung Up Theatre (Megan Dalton, Maddie Skipsey, Megan Henson and John King). It aims to give a mouthpiece to the ostracised, isolated and misunderstood. This includes those currently suffering from mental health issues, those who have recovered, and others linked in via an experience with a relative or friend. The pair, who would later become the show’s directors, set up a Facebook group in the hopes of collating material and within an hour, they had received an extraordinary number of responses. The show takes a selection of these testimonials and offers them to us, unembellished, within a relaxed and safe environment. There’s something of the public lecture about it, but not in any dry or patronising sense. The participants (‘performers’ is a misleading word) engage with us directly and as themselves – first, they express gratitude for our attendance, and then they introduce us to the work, expressing the hope that we’ll be content to listen. There’s very little stage-craft here. As ‘theatre’ it’s about as economical as it can get, but you shouldn’t let that dissuade you from engaging with this simple yet highly resonant work.
Snap out of It! knows it is taking on a great responsibility by sharing these mostly anonymous honesties with the audience, so it’s fitting that it looks to emphasise the hopefulness and often astonishing eloquence of its contributors. The conversational candour is startling at first – maybe we’re too used to, or even grateful for, the brutal poetics of Sarah Kane (surely a dominant reference point for theatrical representations of mental illness) perhaps because they help to fuel a distance between us and ‘it’.
One testimonial describes a suicide attempt in such a matter-of-fact manner that it nearly slips by unnoticed, before your mind staggers and you have to give yourself a moment to process it. As would be expected, there are harrowing admissions, but they are not there for shock value or emotional blackmail; instead, they serve as poignant reminders that for so many people, this is the difficult but unavoidable reality of everyday life. Indeed, if the testimonials do disturb, it’s because of the extent of the repetitions, how the same phrases and the same burdens come up again and again. Fear, shame, guilt: often the fall-out from revealing their conditions to others, rather than merely symptomatic of their struggles. Reassuringly, even as Strung Up does prioritise seeking empathy for first-hand experiences of mental illness, it also demonstrates an admirable sense of balance and restraint. When we hear from one contributor who believes you really can “snap out of it”, there’s not a hint of judgement – it’s simply another voice and we listen willingly.
Brave and really quite ground-breaking, Strung Up Theatre’s production is a work of honesty and importance that demands to be seen by everyone and anyone. What’s most refreshing is that there’s nothing preachy or precious going on. By choosing wisely not to engage in the debate that still rages on internationally between medical professionals, sufferers and cynics on whether the root causes of mental disturbance are environmental, biological or an uncertain combination of both, the participants emphasise that the aim here is not to point fingers, but rather to start the conversation and hope it will continue. One in four people in Britain will experience a mental health problem during their lives, a statistic trotted out so often that its impact hardly even registers anymore. Snap out of It! reconnects us with the people behind the numbers. Make time for this compelling and necessary work.
Snap Out of It! is playing at C Nova as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until August 26. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Festival Fringe website.