Halima Hassan talks to woman of many talents, Rachel Harper about her new play, Rattled which discusses, among other things, postnatal mental health.
Boundary pushing plays exploring taboo subjects are no longer a rarity. Across the country, plays written by diverse voices are being given a platform and changes are put in place to provide better access for target audiences. I caught up with actress, writer and artistic director Rachel Harper to discuss her new play Rattled which explores many difficult subjects including postnatal mental health. Harper describes the play as a “darkly comic and fast-paced one woman show about how we process childhood trauma”.
Harper is a trained actress and Rattled is the second piece she has written and produced (she also performs in the play). The responses from her first project, The Edinburgh Test, a play that follows four new mothers as they navigate the highs and lows of parenthood, informed and inspired Rattled and as she tells me: “[The Edinburgh Test] was workshopped with mothers, midwives, birth councillors. They really connected with the text and at the end of the workshop, a mother approached me with a story of her ‘worst day’ – what it was to be at her lowest. This anecdote planted the seed for Rattled, a story about female mental health and isolation”. Harper elaborates on what she found through researching the play: “Working closely with new parents I have seen the isolation, the impact on self-confidence. You can feel like you’re losing yourself when raising another human being.” According to this article by the National Childbirth Trust, suicide is the leading cause of death among new mothers. Approximately half of all new mothers will suffer from postnatal mental health problems. These problems are underreported and undiagnosed, partly due to stigma around the condition and a lack of awareness. “Everyone knows a mum, this topic should not be ignored,” Harper says. “This is an issue that is still behind a barrier when it comes to portrayal on stage. We are only now, as a society, coming to a point where we are more willing to confront this topic”.
What exactly is the value of a dramatised portrayal of taboo subjects and conditions? I ask Harper what theatre could do better than, say, a factual programme on the subject? “[When I’m writing],” Harper begins, “I always ask myself, what is the point? Could this just be an article? The thing about theatre is that it pushes the audience to connect to what they’re watching. Drama teaches empathy. [When] actively looking at a person telling a story in a dramatised form, I think we as humans are much more likely to empathise and to be moved and changed in some small way”.
In preparation for writing The Edinburgh Test, Harper conducted extensive research, speaking to mothers and a range of health professionals and she used this knowledge to write Rattled, too. She shares with me her strategy when writing about difficult topics: “There are ways to navigate heavy topics that get the message across while being careful. I like to layer things carefully in my writing. I also love using humour; as soon as you get that opening laugh from an audience with a line, you know you have made a connection – there is something in the character or text that the audience has understood. They are with you on this journey.”
The format of Rattled came about as a result of a self-imposed challenge. “I was at a point where I was thinking ‘what can I do to really push myself [professionally]’ ‘what the most terrifying thing I could do’: a one-woman show,’” Harper remembers.
Missmanaged, a theatre company created by Harper and fellow actress and artistic director Catherine Chalk, is producing Rattled. “Our strongest ethos [for this company],” Harper tells me, “is wanting to create other opportunities for likeminded, female-identifying creatives. We exclusively hire female-identifying creatives and we focus on showcasing unheard, female-focussed stories.”
Missmanaged have partnered with Bea & Co to provide childcare for creatives working on Rattled and audience members for select performances. Reaching parents specifically was important to Harper, seeing how the issues portrayed in the play may be ones they can relate to. The director of both this show and The Edinburgh Test, Jemma Gross, is a new mother herself, so it was important that measures existed to assist any creatives working on the show who needed childcare.
“This is the first show Gross is directing since having her child. Childcare is so expensive, and it was important for me to make the show accessible to the creatives working on the show who have children, otherwise we are limiting the talent available to us and that is a loss for everyone,” Harper states. “By providing this support we hope to feed into [promoting positive] mental health by allowing creative parents to work.”
All plays should essentially be for all audiences. After all, even if the experiences on stage do not directly correlate with your life, we’re all connected by our shared experiences of living and reacting to life. At the very least, we learn something new from experiences that differ from our own. However, there is added value when a performance does relate to audience members on a personal level, and it is wonderful when productions make the effort to bring those specific audiences in. In this way, Rattled, by providing childcare to their creatives and arranging specific relaxed performances with childcare for audience members, are enabling new parents that may gain even more from seeing a play like this to attend.
The trailer for Rattled features a distressed woman on an empty platform with a baby carrier. “There are different ways this play can be viewed by the audience,” Harper tells me, as I probe her. “Depending on whether or not you view the baby as belonging to the protagonist can influence what themes you experience from the play. Is it about isolation, loneliness and a crisis in your twenties or is it about postnatal mental health and the stresses of caring?”
Regardless of how audiences interpret Rattled, the message Harper would like attendees to walk away with is that, “there isn’t enough funding and community support for mental health but there are actions, little things we can do daily to make life easier for ourselves and those around us.”
Rattled will be showing from 12 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Old Red Lion Theatre‘s website.