It is extremely interesting to study people’s attitudes and opinions towards mental health in modern society. As someone with many loved ones who have previously or are currently suffering with mental health problems, I often find myself dumfounded by the stigma that still surrounds the topic, as well as the remaining attitude that being mentally unwell isn’t truly an illness and is treated very differently from being physically unwell. That being said, in recent years there has been an increase in the topic’s discussion within film, theatre, music and popular culture, increasing understanding and starting more conversations about what it’s truly like to suffer from mental health problems. We are heading in the right direction, but judging by Chris Mayo’s new play In My Head, we are certainly not there yet. The show may begin a discussion about depression, which is never a negative thing, but for a topic that is so important and so frequently misunderstood, I believe it needs to be treated with more care than Mayo does.
Looking at depression specifically, the show is described as an “exploration of those who struggle, those who help and those who fail to notice”, but unfortunately never explores anything too deeply. The six actors speed through 22 scenes, with chaotic bursts of loud music and contemporary dance style movement in between, ensuring the feeling of uneasiness amongst audience members. It is often unclear whether we are seeing the same character in different scenes, or if in every scene the characters are new, which unfortunately stops us from getting emotionally invested in any of the characters or their situations. The show consequently fails to hold attention.
An effective moment, but one that is all too brief, sees the six actors on stage discussing how it truly feels to suffer with depression. As their statements overlap and become increasingly loud, phrases such as “the doctor knows nothing about me” and “I can’t remember what it’s like to be well” can be heard. These are the phrases and feelings that need to be explored more thoroughly, but I don’t believe the scenes in the show truly do that. Important subjects such as medication, self-harm and suicide attempts are touched upon and then not mentioned again. Is the writer trying to portray that any time mental health issues are brought up they are brushed over in this way? Or is Mayo himself the one brushing over things too quickly? If the show had fewer characters and explored certain situations in more depth, it could have a completely different effect.
A particular scene that stands out is that between a married couple. Having lost their daughter, the woman has become depressed and suffers with obsessive tendencies, which she states has not only ruined her life but also her marriage. During an attempt to describe how she feels to her husband, she starts to have an anxiety attack and the husband screams at her to sort her life out. Elin Doyle portrays this character of the wife incredibly well and the scene is very moving, but true to form it is over in a couple of minutes and we barely see those characters again.
There is also a Black Mirror-style game show scene, in which three people with mental health issues are competing to win a course of CBT sessions and are mocked and jeered at on live TV. It is totally grotesque and certainly succeeds if it’s intended to shock and appal audiences, but feels very strange and out of place in a play that mostly includes realistic scenes.
Mayo does not skirt around the feelings of unfairness and often hopelessness that are felt when suffering with depression, as well as just how dark things can get, but he also appears to give no credit at all to anyone who may understand. There is not one character in the play who is even really sympathetic towards the characters with mental health illnesses unless they are suffering also, and I think this is a totally unfair depiction of what things are truly like. There are definitely still many people who fail to understand it, but particularly amongst young people these days it is a topic all too well understood and often very close to home. Yet the way characters in the show make off-hand comments that aren’t meant to be offensive, but probably are, is a valuable inclusion.
The ending sees six characters (out of about 40 that appear in the show) discussing how they coped and survived, and the ways they treated their illness – either with exercise, medication, CBT or other methods. What about the rest of the characters? What about those who don’t survive? Those whose entire lives are absorbed by these problems and those whose lives end prematurely because of them? If you are going to explore a topic such as this, ending it with the actors singing an a cappella version of the Gnarls Barkley song ‘Crazy’ makes the whole thing seem a bit like a joke. Depression is a thoroughly important topic and one that should never stop being discussed, but I feel the play falls a little short in taking audience members any further in their understanding of the illness. It attempts to do so much within the confines of a 75-minute performance, but I feel it achieves very little.
In My Head played at The Proud Archivist until 14 November. For more information, see The Proud Archivist website.