Monday, 1 October 2012

Mental Health in Theatre

Until I get a better idea, I still believe that the importance of theatre is in its potential for providing a public discussions about serious issues -  I end up writing four reviews of Wonderland because, regardless of the end product, it took on a Big Issue and tried to present different approaches to it. There is something about the nature of performance as a communal experience, too. But that is even more ill-defined.

One area that theatre has consistently flubbed, however, is mental illness. Plays do exist that are sympathetic, or accurate, in their treatment of mental illness - especially in the last few years, there has been an effort to reach out to sufferers to allow  their experience to be reflected. Unfortunately, a fairly rich tradition exists - thanks Shakespeare for the "mad people" in King Lear - that is either viciously unkind or plays it for laughs. Even now, it's more common to find that mental illness is the motivation for a character's bad actions than it simply being a fact of their life. 

This is probably a reflection of  a social attitude seen in the law, where mental illness can be a defence akin to diminished responsibility. And so, I am enthusiastic about  the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, now occupying much of Scotland (October 1 -24).

Much of the festival features community orientated shows - which fall outside of my critical remit, until I develop a satisfactory way to  discuss them. It does have plenty of professional theatre and film: Vanessa Coffey's Piece of Mind uses dance to interpret the voices of bipolar, the Johnny Cash biopic gets a screening, alongside Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. In the Old Hairdressers, My Sister by Scandal Theatre gets physical and Liz Lochhead is joining a plethora of speakers  for a day of workshops, readings and exhibitions.

Frankly, the whole festival is too big for me to preview: it's tough to pick highlights. But every year, it presents a forum for the discussion of one thing that society has rarely understood. The recent death of Szasz, which led to obituaries that recalled his pioneering attempt to get a philosophical handle on mental health - and the controversy he caused -  reminded me that society hasn't even got a reasonable definition of it.

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