25 March 2018
Mental health, captivity and isolation are recurring themes at this year’s festival. Naomi Obeng unpicks the shows exploring internal and external space
Drama has a unique facility to take internal and external states and translate them into a collective experience. Two solo shows at this year’s festival will use the theatrical space to explore mental and physical confinement and how they interact. Hatch by Sarah Carton, a graduate of the University of East Anglia, uses music and monologue to tell the story of a woman in prison and her relationships with those on the outside. In can’t stop can’t stop, Sheffield University English and Theatre student Sam Ross draws on his obsessive compulsive disorder, enacting and elucidating the confining effects of the illness and exploring the ways it can be treated.
But first, let’s be wide-eyed and basic for a paragraph. It seems unfathomable, really, that humans each live within individual mental landscapes with our own perceptions and constraints, communicating with each other while travelling through time and space and together making up a collective, some community that by virtue of simply being reflects back on to itself, imposing norms and, through absences and fears, things-that-shouldn’t-be-said. Not only this, but also that our individual mental landscapes often fall within this category of no-gos, barred from being public spaces, reserved for therapy sessions, perhaps novels and at a stretch motivational speaking. What psychological experiences we all individually deal with remain stingingly internal despite iterations of them being scattered among individuals all over the world. So, these shows touch on something very non-trivial: how can theatre make the personal and internal into something external and experienceable?
For both Carton and Ross, externalising mental states through their shows was a reaction to changes during university life. “At the time, my mental health was worsening significantly, partially as a reaction to the transition to university,” Ross says of can’t stop can’t stop. “I began writing this show as a way to come to terms with my own condition, and as an attempt to explain to others how it feels.” Carton developed her show Hatch in her final year, aiming to explore the emotions she’d not fully confronted during her degree, fuelled by the difficult breakup of an unhealthy relationship and the loss of her mother to cancer when she was a child. “I wanted to create a cathartic, expressive piece that checked in with those feelings of confinement, loneliness and abandonment.”
Overtly, Hatch focuses on physical isolation, but it too is rooted in deeply psychological experiences. “The character, Jess, was developing before I even knew the show was going to be about a woman in prison. I had this idea of a mouthy, extroverted, ‘life of the party’ woman, who was internally feeling like a scared little girl. I wanted to show that ‘scared little girl’ side. I felt like I could relate to this, and was sure lots of the people around me could.” Carton drew inspiration from a friend’s time in a young offenders institute and the extreme loneliness it had caused her. Several ideas coalesce into a show that, despite the hard questions it raises about the prison system, aims to ultimately be a relatable psychological journey. “To me, Jess is just a person trying to get on with things in a terrible situation,” Carton tells me. “Any of us could be a Jess, if we met the wrong person at the wrong time.”
can’t stop can’t stop examines the boundary between internal and external states, showing how obsessive thoughts manifest in confining physical actions. “In the opening scene of the show, I express how the anxiety fuelling obsessive compulsive rituals can almost feel like being paralysed,” Ross says. “Rather than a physical inability to move, the paralysis is rooted in a fear of bringing about the very worst.” Performing these actions in a theatrical space will make this duality of the mental illness clear to those watching. “Having the internal anxiety manifest itself onstage through the violence of obsessive compulsive routines gives it a raw immediacy and reality that it doesn’t necessarily receive through description alone.” Through their subject matters and their roots in personal experiences, these shows are set to reflect on what we rarely see behind boundaries – on how the mental and physical influence each other and how confinement in one can set about confinement in the other.
Developing her show was a way for Carton to express thoughts and ideas that she would not naturally share, overcoming personal boundaries in a way that felt true to her. “I’m not trying to make an eloquent point, win a debate or prove myself. I’m just inviting people to share a small amount of time with me and be open-minded. Share a story rather than an opinion. I like that there’s no wrong or right answer.” For Ross, opening people’s minds to the workings of his own is a huge aim of this solo show. “I have had people approach me after performances to say that the show has helped them better understand their own friends or family members who have also been diagnosed with the illness, which really moves me.”
Being part of an audience can sometimes feel like a passive, detached act of watching. But these shows will invite us to witness how individuals cope in difficult situations as a collective experience. I hope that the mental and physical spaces developed in can’t stop can’t stop and Hatch will get people feeling, reflecting and, when they’re ready to do so, externalising.