Everything in its right place

Everything in its right place

11 April 2017

Swallow excels in representing mental health thanks to excellent writing and performances, says Florence Bell

Representing mental health onstage isn’t easy but Swallow pulls it off effortlessly. It’s a brilliant exploration of the realities of living with a mental health disorder, of being lonely, of struggling to be accepted and to feel at home.

Although the stage directions of the play instruct directors to “imagine it as you wish”, this production is very uncannily similar to the first staging of Swallow in Edinburgh in 2015. In fairness to director George Rexstrew, this is one of the most aesthetic things I’ve ever seen. The minimal set contains only the bare essentials. The blocking toys with ideas of emotional distance and closeness. Very little of what we see is the literal action and almost nothing happens in real time. Things are close and distant at the same time.

Aesthetic is really the only adjective I can think to use to describe this because that’s what it is. Even the way the actors move is beautiful and fascinating. Everything about the direction is intensely visual. The blocking places the actors into striking images. Every second is a work of art, from the two women brushing fingertips during the first door scene to Anna in the snow.

The lighting and sound cues are the smoothest I have ever seen in student theatre. The lighting is subtle and electric at the same time.

The acting, too, is brilliant. I want to describe Steph Sarratt’s performance as Anna as a kind of cross between Lia Williams in Oresteia and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honourable Woman but to describe her as other people doesn’t do her justice. Sarratt’s acting is raw, painful, real and intimate all at once. Annie Davison (Rebecca) is brilliant in equal measures, offering the audience comic relief alongside a serious representation of her character’s pain. The casting of Matt Dormer as a trans man is an inappropriate move: I’m not going to comment any more on this character because to do so would be to validate this misguided decision.

Swallow’s depiction of Anna’s mental health difficulties is realistic and brutal without being too triggering. There’s humour (“I thought I’d have a few months until the voices came”) but it’s never offensive. Swallow focuses on the realities of mental illness and of trying to cope over the gory details: Rebecca acts out her self-harm but there’s no actual blood onstage. Instead the focus of her character is on what it’s like to try to make it to tomorrow. “I called my doctor and he said I should go for a walk to try and calm down. I told him to go fuck himself.” What the play really nails on the head is the idea that when you’re living with anxiety, things like missing a bus, that seem banal to the other characters, mean the world to Anna.

The play is about recovering and forging self-love and self-worth. For Anna, all of this leads to stepping outside for the first time in nearly two years. “Your voice… it’s your voice” is a poignant moment. Recovery in Swallow is not just emotional but empowering: the play ends on the idea of pausing, of stillness, of taking the time to breathe, to be yourself.

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