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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Solpadeine is my Boyfriend

Posted on 14 August 2013 by Eleanor Turney

Solpadeine is my Boyfriend

Star Rating:
(3/5 stars)

Solpadeine is an over-the-counter painkiller, comprised of codeine, paracetamol and caffeine. It’s also the most constant presence in Stefanie’s life. Moving from Cork to Dublin in search of work and an elusive “better” life, Stefanie Preissner (who wrote and performs the piece) draws us into an Ireland where all the young people are emigrating – moving first to the cities and then to Australia, in search of sun and satisfaction. Stefanie doesn’t want to move. She doesn’t want anything to change at all, and as her friends from Cork drift away and her friends in Dublin move on, she clings to Solpadeine like a comfort blanket.

Except that it isn’t. An addiction to painkillers can’t solve her problems, as it gradually emerges that Stefanie is deeply, hauntingly depressed, too – a metaphorical dog follows her around, and she takes the Solpadeine to mute its barking. It’s a compelling, though unoriginal, metaphor for depression, and what Preissner and director Gina Moxley do well is show the effects that mental illness has on those around Stefanie: her boyfriend Stephen tries his best to be supportive, but as Stefanie hides her pills and struggles to seek help, he finds it “too hard to stop us both from drowning”.

Preissner’s script tries to wrap this all up in an exploration of the “fight or flight” response, suggesting that those of us who don’t flee (in a literal or metaphorical sense) need to find better ways of fighting. This is illustrated by a rather laboured use of a punch bag and boxing gloves, which works sporadically. The piece is at its best when it’s just Stefanie trying to explain what’s going on in her head – “If one more person offers me St John’s wort I’ll shoot them”. It’s good when it explores what it means to be “home”, and to feel the pull of the old and familiar counterbalanced with the lure of the new and potentially better. It’s weaker when it tries to open this up to look at youth unemployment and other big contemporary issues.

“Pain is an alarm,” Preissner tells us. “It’s a way of trying to get the body to distance itself from the source of the pain.” This is more difficult of course when the pain is inside, and the piece makes its points with delicacy. Solpadeine is my Boyfriend is a poignant and interesting look at mental illness and addiction, but some moments of clumsy staging and a preachy tone towards the end let it down slightly.

Solpadeine is My Boyfriend is at Underbelly Bristo Square until 26 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website

 

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Suburban hell: Matti Houghton on Brimstone and Treacle at the Arcola Theatre

Posted on 07 May 2012 by Becky Brewis

Dennis Potter’s most controversial piece, Brimstone and Treacle, opens at the Arcola this week. Directed  by Amelia Sears and starring Rupert Friend, it is the first major London production of the work, which was originally banned before transmission by the BBC. Set against a backdrop of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in the summer of 1977, this is a timely revival.

Dennis Potter is perhaps best known for his hit TV drama series The Singing Detective (1986), recently re-shown on BBC One, and as fans of the show will know, Potter’s work doesn’t date. It crackles on the borderline between fantasy and reality, and Brimstone and Treacle is as relevant now as it was in 1976. So why hasn’t it been put on sooner? “Because it’s really dark”, says Friend’s co-star Matti Houghton, who herself is no stranger to staring the darker side of human nature in the face – recent work includes the lead role in Antigone (Manchester Royal Exchange) and the incestuous Annabella in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Liverpool Everyman). A few days before first night, Houghton shared some of her thoughts on the play. For starters, Houghton can’t understand why it has taken so long for this superb piece of writing to be recognised. She plays Pattie, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Bates (Ian Redford and Tessa Peake-Jones), who two years ago was severely injured in a hit and run car accident and left incapacitated, confined to the living room of her parents’ suburban home. The middle-aged, lower middle-class couple struggle to come to terms with what has happened to their daughter, when a visit from an apparently respectable young man (Rupert Friend) changes their lives forever. As a twisted tale about fear and morality unravels, there are no easy answers to be found in Potter’s unsettling four-hander.

I asked Houghton what the atmosphere has been like in the rehearsal room: “It’s been brilliant. I’ve done a lot of really traumatic plays and actually weirdly those are the ones you have more fun on – because you sort of have to. I think when the subject matter is so dark you have to have a light rehearsal room otherwise it’s all too much, whereas with the comedies I’ve done it’s always been really miserable.” One thing that crops up again and again while talking to Houghton is the question of the past. While Brimstone and Treacle remains a controversial piece – especially in the close space of a studio theatre – it is also “quite a period piece”, she says, “and the language is quite period […] so it represents a very particular time in history. Class-wise it’s very interesting. They are a sort of lower-middle class family who are desperately trying – you know they have loose-leafed tea and they do their coffee properly, they don’t have instant coffee and there’s all these references to very sort of period things.”

But while a Jubilee backdrop and the heights of tea-time sophistication in 70s middle England might seem quaint at first glance, it’s worth remembering that next month England will be hurled once more into the world of flag-waving parades and commemoration mugs. Things haven’t changed completely and Houghton is quick to warn against the allure of nostalgia: “There are a lot of references in the play to how we want England to be how it used to be, this kind of nostalgic thing and I think that for me that’s what royalty sort of represents: a nostalgia for the past. That’s why people like kings and queens – because you like this idea ‘this is what England is meant to be like’, and in fact England is changing and thank God it did. But the play is right on the brink of big, big change and people are scared. You know, because of what was happening in suburbia and the industry changing and mass immigration happening, and there’s a lot of references to that in the play. And culturally, too, if you think about what’s happening for women – getting emancipated and sex changing and the pill being invented and all of that kind of revolution that happened between the 60s and 70s.”

I asked Houghton how Pattie fits into all this, crucially in the context of her disability. “The neurologist said that he thought it was a conversion disorder, which is this really extraordinary thing where it’s basically psychosomatic – so it’s completely real – whatever is happening to her is completely real but medically there is absolutely nothing wrong with her and it’s about the body’s way of dealing with stress […] i.e. you lose your speech completely, and if your parents think you’re brain-damaged and strap you to the bed, you would actually lose the use of your legs very quickly, because you just lose muscle tissue.”

And the treatment back then? “They wouldn’t have known what it was. They wouldn’t even have had CT scans or MRI scans so they would have taken one look at her and gone well she hasn’t got a fracture so she’s best out of here and we don’t really know what’s wrong with her […] The way they deal with conversion disorders now is through talking therapy. Instead, her dad is in complete denial that anything that’s happening to her that she can understand. So a lot of the first part of the play is her trying to communicate with them and them kind of ignoring her, so it’s pretty awful.” I asked her how she has managed to prepare for such a demanding part: “Well, our director is really fantastic and all the work we’ve done round the table has been very detailed. I’ve basically worked out my own language so that everything she’s saying I know what I’m saying or at least what I’m trying to say so that it’s very clear – so just like I’m talking now except that the words are coming out as sounds rather than as words.”

Houghton admits she thrives on difficult parts like these; they are why she is in actor: “Anything grim on the stage and basically I’m your girl. My first job out of drama school was this German play called Stallerhoff and I did that at the Southwark playhouse for £100 a week. I had to do everything that you never want to do on stage in that part, but it was an amazing play and it kind of pushed all the limits, you know, nudity, sex, everything. Personally I think life is dark and yeah you can go and see a play that is sort of escapist but you can also go and see plays that challenge you and make you think differently about things. That make you understand a family in a very, very difficult situation in a way that if you go and see something light-hearted you don’t get, and I think especially in studio theatres you are complicit and you are confronted with a lot of things that we don’t want to think about every day and, personally, that’s right up my street.”

Brimstone and Treacle opens at the Arcola Theatre Studio 2 on 2 May and runs until 2 June. After-show readings of other work by Dennis Potter are being held on Wednesdays. See the website for details.

Image credit: Rupert Friend as Martin Taylor by Faye Thomas

Becky Brewis

Becky Brewis

Becky Brewis is Commissioning Editor of AYT. She is a freelance writer and editor and has written for Huffington Post UK and IdeasTap and reviews theatre for Broadway World and One Stop Arts. Sub-editing includes IdeasTap, Nick Hern Books and fashion and art magazines Nowness and Wonderland. She has worked for theatres and arts organisations including the Finborough, the Pleasance, the Southbank Centre, Cecil Sharp House and the Barbican Centre.

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Behind the scenes: drama therapy

Posted on 08 March 2012 by Emma Struthers

Rolling around on the floor, flailing your arms about and pretending to be an octopus might not be what you expect when you hear the term “drama therapy”. Yet drama therapist Rachel Perry sheds some light on this unique form of creative expression: “working with and through the body is very therapeutic”, she says. Having trained as a dancer and used drama as part of her personal journey, Perry uses the tools of voice and movement in her work to create “a bridge between the art form and the healing approach to drama”. So what exactly is drama therapy?

The Creative Therapy Network defines it as “the use of theatre techniques to assist personal growth and promote mental health”. These techniques include role play, drama games, group-dynamic exercises, mime, puppetry and improvisation. They are designed to help solve problems and achieve a healthier and more contented way of living, and are used in hospitals, schools, mental health centres, prisons and businesses. For Perry, “drama therapy acts both as container of feelings and the expression of deep emotions, offering the means to explore them… [it is] a playful way to connect with the self and relate inner experiences to the external world through imagination.” Anyone who has participated in a drama therapy course will recognise the truths about confidence, self-esteem and our inner critic. My own experience included writing down everything that I disliked about myself or that held me back from my creativity. We were then paired up and instructed to shout all of the negative things at our partner, resulting – unsurprisingly – in many tissues and teary eyes. We were asked, why, if we wouldn’t dream of shouting these things at another person, do we do it to ourselves? How often do the critics on our shoulders crush our creative sides, telling us we can’t do it – we’re not good enough? As Perry observes, in drama therapy, the spontaneity of the moment enables us to discover that we are the source of our own creativity. This process offers “the opportunity for new experience and fresh insight into behaviour patterns, the release of emotions and the potential for change”.

The question of mental health conjures up different responses in people. It is becoming more acknowledged due to radio and television adverts challenging the way we react to and treat people who are suffering or recovering from mental illness. Yet the ethos of “it’s time to talk; it’s time to change” is perhaps easier said – or heard – than done. Drama therapy, however, may offer a supportive solution. Playwrights have been dealing with mental illness creatively for years. Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis deals with the subject of severe clinical depression; the script has no explicit stage directions or characters and appears as a stream of consciousness and self-hatred. It features negative mantras: “I cannot overcome my loneliness, my fear, my disgust. I am fat. I cannot write. I cannot love.” The title of the play itself derives from the time Kane used to wake every night in a depressed state. Similarly, Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World Of Dissocia deals with the issue of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder, a condition involving breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity or perception. Looking at our society today, the Mental Health Foundation believes that “20% of children have a mental health problem in any given year” and “1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year”.

Can drama therapy have a direct impact on statistics like these? Perry believes so. She has “witnessed many transformations in people… many clients have felt their lives turn around as a result of discovering and understanding their inner cast of characters. For instance, how past experiences need not control your life. Through exploring the ‘what if?’ in drama therapy, they have felt it empowering to find themselves back in the driver’s seat simply through recognising they had a choice and the mask they were carrying doesn’t serve them anymore.” One example of a woman suffering from bereavement led to a relevation: “through movement and body work she began to reconnect with the feelings allowing her to release the anger that had built up inside her. By the end of the session, her physical body was noticeably more grounded and her face had lifted into a smile, the first in a long time. Her energy soared and she danced around the room. Seven years of feeling disconnected with herself, yet two hours of drama therapy and she was transformed back to her former self.”

Despite such positive stories, there has been a lull in the use of drama therapy in recent years. Perry, however, is ambitious for the future, planning to “provide resources for young people to develop their potential, explore the blocks that may inhibit them creating the change they seek, to raise awareness of this through theatre and the arts”. She hopes to “use drama therapy as a forum for debate and expression of issues affecting young people, giving them a voice through devised theatre and performance”.

Clearly, drama has been acknowledging and engaging with issues surrounding mental health for generations. But the question remains: is mental health acknowledging drama? Theatre is an invigorating and poignant way to reach people, raise awareness of issues, and build individual confidence and self-esteem, and drama therapy itself is applicable to a multitude of environments from schools to hospitals for all sorts of rehabilitation purposes. It encourages self-worth and invites participants to re-engage with themselves, and should surely be encouraged as a positive and affirming resource for dramatists and mental health professionals alike. Even if it means unleashing your inner sea animal.

Rachel Perry runs drama therapy courses based in Bath. More information about her courses can be found on her website, www.dramatherapy.org.uk.

Image credit: Lubaib Photography

Emma Struthers

Emma Struthers

Emma is a graduate from BA Scriptwriting and Performance at UEA in Norwich, and is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing Scriptwriting at UEA. She loves writing and performing and is a keen member of Stuff Of Dreams Theatre Company as a writer and actor, based in Norfolk and Suffolk.

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Madness of the mind: Rocinante! Rocinante!

Posted on 23 February 2012 by Hannah Clark

There is rarely a topic or theme that has yet to be explored by theatre, and it’s this explorative flexibility which inspired theatre collective Panta Rei to push the boundaries with new production Rocinante! Rocinante!, a theatrical investigation into mental health. Dealing with the stigmas attached to madness, Creative Director Chiara D’Anna hopes the production will “trigger questions and challenge preconceptions”.

The show takes inspiration from two iconic texts, Don Quixote and Hamlet, yet it is not merely a reconstruction of these stories. Panta Rei has deconstructed and analysed what makes these stories work on a fundamental level: “Shakespeare and Cervantes’ questions on the nature of life and death, dreams and reality provided a fantastic source of inspiration for us”. The texts are “used in a very unorthodox way. We took some characters and situations and we started playing freely with them, allowing ourselves to create our own material”. With a mixture of devised and original dialogue, the production actively tests the limits of theatre and literature. “We focused on these texts because they are some of the most inspiring and fascinating texts ever written on the boundaries between fantasy and reality, sanity and madness, life and death, not only in their words but in their style, too”. Clearly, this is a production, and a company, led by a true passion for theatre and, most importantly, for storytelling. “We simply fell in love with Don Quixote… an obsessive love. One of those that keeps you awake at night.”

For D’Anna, theatre is when “both performers and spectators play the game of ‘make believe’. It is a sort of gym for the mind. An excellent practice to exercise our imagination, not only our muscles.” A fitting ethos for a company whose name comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which translates as “everything flows”. This fluidity has led to productions of various styles, from the physical theatre of Lilith Rain to the decadant, Venetian -inspired Masquerade. “The company aims for visceral and visually powerful live performances,” D’Anna explains. “We want to create imaginary worlds that can be inhabited by both actors and spectators”. It’s this relationship between actor and audience that enables the company to make the most of theatre’s possibilities for the imagination.

Nonetheless, the decision to stage the play as a promenade performance “provoked many challenges… more than expected artistically, technically and financially”. Learning to adapt to this style rather than fight it was problematic, but vital to allow the audience to follow the journey. Even when logistical concerns such as lighting and moving the audience are dealt with, the actors have to familiarise themselves with a new and unconventional setting, and “completely change their physical sequences in response to that”. D’Anna sums it up as a “demanding space, but the reward at the end is incredible. The first time we saw one light in the space we all felt a big relief. We really felt that we were creating an ‘all imaginary world’ in a room.”

Describing itself as a “surreal journey through a restless mind”, Rocinante! Rocinante! promises an immersive exploration of a marginalised and often generalised subject. This didn’t come without a sense of trepidation for the company. “We tried to avoid falling into the same traps and we tried to explore both sides of mental illness. The joyful and poetic aspect of it, as well as the tragic and dark side of being an outcast.” Two years in the making, the production has involved meticulous research to ensure its authenticity. While consulting with experts in psychiatry, psychology and history of medicine, the company also watched numerous films, documentaries and looked at paintings and pictures. “We contextualised our work by looking at the same topic from two perspectives: the Baroque time and the twenty-first century.” Crossing two eras, the production seeks to make mental health a relevant and approachable topic, generating conversation and breaking down the taboos around the subject.

To achieve this, Panta Rei has given familiar literary figures a new life. “Our characters are archetypes, in the sense that they represent specific values and ideologies rather than complex personalities”. But this has been no easy journey. The piece has dramatically changed since its conception, through a dynamic – and at times unusual - approach to rehearsals. Although adopting traditional techniques of warm-ups and character progression, the company also uses “various approaches in unorthodox ways, from Commedia dell’Arte to core training”. To spark inspiration, the rehearsal room is filled with “objects and images from the world of Cervantes and Shakespeare”. Then, as D’Anna puts it, “We start playing.”

To say Panta Rei is a hands-on company would be to underestimate its commitment to physicality. Whether addressing character development or the production as a whole, it maintains a visceral approach. D’Anna explains, “Working with objects is a pivotal part of our work. We play with these objects as children and Don Quixote would do: they can be anything and their function and meaning can change in different moments throughout the improvisation.” From this malleable approach to rehearsals has developed a definite individual style. Rocinante! Rocinante! is a surreal piece and D’Anna describes how “the original idea started with an image: a cemetery at night. Then a horse skull followed (Rocinante is Don Quixote’s horse) because I found one which inspired me. All the scenes can be seen as a collection of images. A dream, a flash-back or a visual hallucination.” There is a nod here to the work of the Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, famed for his complex depictions of religion and morality. D’Anna confesses, “my idea since the beginning was to utilise Bosch consistently throughout the piece. He has influenced our work since the very beginning.”

Not content with producing an ambitious show, the company also participate in Don Quixote’s World Project, providing interdisciplinary workshops in schools and universities on both theatre and mental illness in order “to promote tolerance amongst young people, utilising Don Quixote as a starting point to explore the figure of the ‘outcast’ throughout history. The work developed with the students made us aware of the stigma attached to ‘mental illness’.” D’Anna advises, “I think that the only two important qualities a company needs are perseverance and honesty. Always work with honesty.” Panta Rei’s commitment is a cultural and social one, exploring relevant issues with an individual approach that informs, educates and ultimately impresses. What of the audience – what will they go home with? “To leave as if they had just awoken from a dream. Dreams can leave a strong impact on us and we can feel very emotional throughout the day as if the images, people and situations within the dream kept haunting us throughout the day… or for years.”

Panta Rei presents Rocinante! Rocinante! at the CLF Cafe, Bussey Building, Peckham until 2 March. For more information and tickets, visit the website.

Image credit: Panta Rei

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