Contemporary theatre has a tendency to consider life’s big questions. Especially if a play has a political motive, theatre can seek to confront the state of our society and express something about it, to provoke thought and discussion. I have left theatres after watching experimental theatre just about ready to grab the next passerby and relay all of my thoughts on religion, current affairs or some other weighty topic… However, leaving the auditorium at the Oxford Playhouse this week, the big questions I wanted to ask were of a different nature – they were more personal.
“What do you do when you can’t bear it anymore?… How did your mum do it? When she couldn’t stand it anymore?” shouts Becky, a secondary school student in Matthew Dunster’s Mogadishu, a play by Vivienne Franzmann. Primarily a consequence of the trauma caused by her father’s suicide, Becky confesses in her rage that she self-harms when she can’t cope. Jason never responds to her question but it is evident that Jason expresses his inner struggle through violence, anger, lying, cheating, swearing, and generally being a very difficult student.
When Becky shouted those words, it got me thinking about how different people deal with pain and the things that we do to find comfort in times of distress. We spend our lives trying to find ways of coping – ways to communicate what we cannot express in words – and for Becky the only way to do this is through her body. She stands at the kitchen table laying out all of the sharp knives in the kitchen, rolling up her sleeves to display cuts from previous episodes of self-injury, and is only prevented from cutting in this instance by her mother, Amanda, who silently enters the room and cradles her daughter in her arms. They cannot stand it anymore.
This element of Mogadishu – its ability to connect memories and past tragedy to how we respond to our present lives – reminded me of a production that I recently worked on with Tower Theatre Company at the Bridewell Theatre. Crimes of the Heart is a play about three sisters (Babe, Meg and Lenny) who had a difficult childhood, and who have to deal with things they thought were in the past when Babe is charged with the attempted murder of her husband (a crime which she committed). It conveys what happens when life forces us to confront past traumas and the lengths that one will go to when trying to find ways to deal with them. Reminiscing on their childhood, Babe tells Lenny how Meg coped in the years following finding their mother after she had committed suicide – forcing herself to look at pictures of people with horrific diseases and crippled children whilst eating ice cream to convince herself that she was not a weak person and that she could “stand it”. She tries to become numb to these graphic images and consequently to the reality of life.
Theatre often connects with an audience on a personal level, much of it is modelled on real-life events after all, and it is the sign of a good director if a piece stirs the emotions. If I watch a play and see part of my own life in it, part of myself, the characters start to feel real and I feel part of the whole. Like listening to a piece of music which could have been written for me because the poetry of the lyrics feel concurrent with my life, when you begin to see truth in a performance it starts to feel like you are more than just a spectator – you grow with the play and partake in the experience with the characters. Mogadishu stares the audience in the eyes and forces us to question what motivates us to feel self-destructive – what do I do when I can’t bear it? This entails thinking about not only the individual, but the collective – why do people lie, self-harm, or commit suicide? What do we do when we can’t bear life anymore, and why do we do it?
Image credit: Alexander Knapp