Sunday, 29 July 2018

Valerie Dramaturgy: Robin Kelly @ Edfringe 2018

Valerie - To All The Women Who Hold On For The Ones They Love

Valerie reaches deep into the guts of families and their mythologies and also honours all the women, down the generations, who have been strong for those they love.

It is a work of inter-generational cabaret theatre created by writer, composer and performer Robin Kelly that is inspired by his own grandmother’s battle to support a troubled family.

This was a family where the seemingly joyous quirkiness of a grandfather who kept live canaries in his beard slid into despair and dislocation through the nearly overwhelming impact of severe mental illness. Kelly’s grandmother Valerie was their bulwark.

The title role is taken by actor, guitarist and singer Cherie Moore who appears alongside Kelly and drummer Tom Broome. Together they intersperse the compelling narrative with a series of powerful blues-style songs.

First of all, how do you define mental health? What does the term mean to you - do you have a social model of sanity, for example, or is it concerned with neural atypical conditions?

Our show ‘Valerie’ deals quite directly with the conflict between conceiving ‘mental health’ as either a social or medical/neurological condition. That conflict really percolates through the whole work. As the writer of the work I have a background in molecular and neuro biology, and so my first port of call for understanding mental disturbance is a scientific one.

Through the process of dealing with my own mental disquiet and creating this show I have directly confronted that scientific reductionist approach and forced myself to accept that whilst causation might be at the molecular level, the experience and our understanding
of mental health needs to be face to face at the social level.

What areas of mental health are you looking at in the performance?

We’re looking at the intergeneration ramifications of mental health issues. So this necessarily touches on both the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to an individual’s overall health. The catalyst for the work was my grandfather’s severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the spectre of genetic susceptibility that haunts my generation.

It’s a show almost more about that threat than anything else – it addresses my grandfather’s condition and my own chronic depression, but overall it’s trying to relieve the panic of the unknown – the fear of the dark – about what we can and can’t control about our mental health destinies.

In what ways do you hope that  your play can help the audience to move forward in their understanding and actions towards a greater sense of mental good health?

Mental health issues are scary. Even though mental illness is much less stigmatized these days, it can still be an extremely confronting phenomenon to experience yourself, and there are plenty of barriers to openly acknowledging that struggle. ‘Valerie’ is, for me, an extremely personal platform to uncompromisingly stare that fear in the face. I expect (and have experienced) that being an audience member for this show is challenging, but it’s a constructive challenge.

A challenge to openly acknowledge your own fear, your own grief, your own struggles. To not compartmentalize or shut off. To be vulnerable and open to what scares you. We all have rationalisations that prevent us from dealing directly with some of our biggest flaws. ‘Valerie’ encourages audiences to slough off those rationalisations and just start to feel. I reckon that’s a vital first step to constructive coping with mental health challenges.

And given the high pressure nature of the Fringe, do you have any ideas about positive self-care during August in Edinburgh.

Positive self-care in the fringe has been a lynchpin of our strategy as a company for coming to Edinburgh. We’re coming from the other side of the world (little ol’ New Zealand), which means not only facing a huge financial burden, but leaving all our support structures behind. So as a company we’re looking inward to support each other with some super practical steps. The most important of these is that we have scheduled time across August to check back in with families/therapists/partners/friends at home, and we all understand that that is a priority which supersedes anything else – flyering, socialising, seeing other shows, whatever. Personally, I’ve got my running shoes and I’m going to start an intimate relationship with Arthur’s Seat.

Kelly says: “The show goes to some dark places. But it’s an exercise in not being afraid of those dark places too. I’ve written songs that explore the connection between experiences across generations. I’ve written some pretty brutal truths. But ultimately I think the show is about love. It’s a way of saying thank you to my grandmother and all those other women across the world who have struggled to keep their loved ones safe.”
The Fringe offers the first chance for audiences outside New Zealand to see Valerie which is directed by Benjamin Henson and presented by Last Tapes Theatre Company. The company has a long, successful track record The Last Five Years, Verbatim, Earnest, Fallout: The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, Love and Information) and sums up its ethos as “theatre that gives a shit”.

·     Venue: Summerhall, Cairns Lecture Theatre
·     Dates: 3-26 August, preview 1 August
·     Time: 21:15
·     Duration: 65 mins
·     Ticket prices: Full price £12, concessions £10, preview £5

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