In order to get the best understanding out of this review, I would recommend readers watch excerpts of Speak Bitterness by Forced Entertainment, as I feel this is a very good example of the kind of performance style this dramatic text would benefit from using, instead, as its mode of expression. Not only this, but the raw and neutral (undramatised) manner in which material is organised in this performance is something from which Rosalind Blessed’s own writing here could and should take inspiration, not necessarily by incorporating the same tone or subject matter but purely by studying its organisation and structuring of material and its deliberate lack of fictionalisation and psychological realism.
On to the review. This dramatic text struggles immensely to marry its content with its mode of expression. It makes use of a traditional dramatic and hedonistic style of theatre, comprising character, plot and setting. This, I believe is a huge flaw for this performance. The classical unities of time, action and place subtract from the raw authenticity and relatability of the material at hand. The so-called ‘self-made limbo’ in which the characters find themselves stuck fictionalises their sufferings to such an extent that the aim of the performance is skewed: is this an expository and demonstrative performance whose sociopolitical focus intends to educate, inform or challenge the understanding of its audience? Or is this simply a self-contained, hedonistic piece of drama intending simply to entertain its audience by using suffering as its overall theme and driving force?
To elucidate, I mean that the overall focus of this performance remains on the plot which is as follows: the characters are stuck in an otherworldly and punitive space; they need to come to terms with their subjective sufferings in order to escape it. These sufferings are presented, in this way, as secondary, as items that progress the overall, overbearing plot. This focus, I believe, needs to be realigned so as to have these sufferings function as the primary feature of this performance, instead. It simply feels as though Blessed was unsure about how to get her subject matter onto the stage, how to organise these monologues/duologues in a way that would make sense visually and theatrically. To fictionalise the content and to have its voicers be fictional characters, it seems, was the easy [and most common] way out for Blessed. It is what she is clearly used to. However, the dramatic and plot-centred style she chooses does not complement her aims and the messages she wishes to convey.
Lullabies for the Lost professes to communicate and tackle real, authentic and raw human experiences of mental illnesses and disorders, traumas, struggles and sufferings, with Blessed claiming firsthand experience of these. The aim, then, is clearly to voice and represent such real and hard-hitting subjects in a considerate, cogent and perhaps eye-opening manner. However, our guides through these subjects are characters, characters who have goals, and these goals are simply to express their feelings/traumas/emotions/mindsets simply in order to escape the room, nothing else. Our focus, then, is directed towards the dramatic purposes of these monologues, how they progress the plot along: will they convince the room to let them pass? Will these characters succeed? Our interest remains firmly secured in the fiction, in the story; the sufferings are merely tools for its progression.
Aiming to marry this content with the constraints of psychological realism and the classical unities of place, time and action means that the content no longer seems realistic or poignant. It simply seems thematic and useful, and these sufferings become rudimentary appropriations for simple entertainment purposes. This, I should imagine, is not the aim or purpose of this writing.
Here is where I shall compare this performance against Speak Bitterness. In Speak Bitterness, there is a lack of fictional character, of illusory setting, and time is authentic and durational. The performers speak in both singular and plural first-person and direct their lines to the audience, and thus seem to present us with nothing but themselves. They are simply either altered personae, versions of themselves, or voices for / representative of human experiences, actions and thought. They do not interact with one another or break an extremely rigid, tailored and specific structure. On top of this, visual elements simply complement the aims of the text; they do not adorn or fictionalise it to an unnecessary degree. All of these features really force us to focus on the content alone, and the material is organised in a most poignant and meaningful way.
Back to Lullabies for the Lost. As stated above, the performers are portraying characters. These have altercations, discords and disagreements and express their frustrations or worries about being trapped in the room. These emotions and expressions could certainly exist without any of the sufferings, and this is evidenced by how the characters go on for so long, bickering or sometimes encouraging each other, without any actual allusions to their sufferings whatsoever. These interactions are fictive and supplementary. Then, we have some overdramatic features such as the characters running towards the door in the hope to open it, or Larry’s (Chris Porter) initial freak-out when he first arrives in the room (which is then completely forgotten about — I imagine because Blessed does actually understand that, if continuous, this would distract from the material at hand). These moments are fleeting and unprogressive. Beyond how the characters interact with the room, we have the room itself, its appearance and its geography. Blocks are constantly moved around by the actors, and, again, this is just a very strange decision to me, as it serves no other purpose than to set up for the projection later on (I shall get to this later), or perhaps to refresh/reinvigorate the stage every now and then — another technique tiresomely intended for nothing but hedonistic purposes. The set is cartoon-like, white all over with harsh black lines outlining the boxes and bevels of the doorframe. It is overly unnatural.
Less about how the sufferings are presented [or discredited] and on to what these sufferings actually are. Blessed claims to have firsthand experience with all of the sufferings communicated by this performance, yet there lacks a considerable degree of realism and care in the ‘solutions’ presented. This pertains primarily to the content of the projected video.
This projection is an utterly incongruous element of this performance, destroying the stasis that this performance works so hard to construct throughout and adding an oddly readily accepted and even admired Big Brother-esque character into the mix, an absolutely random woman from whom we are supposed to take wisdom and guidance. The material expressed through this video is also utterly uneducated, objective and vapid. “Forget about your problems, love each other and live in the moment” serves only as a vapid everyday encouragement that we find in the modern day as, for example, with inspirational quotes and daily uplifts online; this is not a progressive message tailored to the often extremes of mental illness and mental disorders. Bulimia cannot be resolved by thinking positive, nor can post-miscarriage depression, neither can any of these be resolved by buying a dog. I will mention here as well that, yet again, the content is, supposedly, raw, didactic, encouraging and inspiring, and then enter the character of Andy in the projection who utterly fictionalises the message we have just received. In fact, having all of the characters sit down to watch and listen to Ma (Hildegard Neil) as if some kind of guru or goddess means that all of this information remains intended for the characters only and is hence limited in its a-/effect on the minds of the actual audience. Our focus becomes: “Aww, isn't that sweet that all the characters feel better about and within themselves?” as opposed to “This is inspiring and has changed the way I think about my own mental illness or those of other, real people.”
Blessed makes a very dubious decision in choosing to combine the types of sufferings she does. Breakups, bulimia, eating disorders, miscarriages, loneliness, anxiety, depression, hoarding and finally rat infestations have no place amongst one another. It is highly erroneous to place such heavy and difficult topics side by side and expect them to retain their desired integrity, accuracy and vigilance. Even if, for example, Ash’s (Duncan Wilkin) monologue was an utterly eye-opening, thought-provoking and, above all, realistic representation of the traumatic nature of eating disorders and sectioning/institutionalisation, to place this beside other experiences of trauma and struggle initiates a discourse of dis-/similarity; we start to see this sequence of monologues as an insensitive “Who can make me feel the most pity?” We naturally start to weigh these against each other, judging their validity through comparison, and this is all accentuated by the fact that Andy (Chris Pybus) is allowed to progress to ‘the next stage’. We become under the impression that there is something about his illness and the way in which he is dealing with it that forces us to see him as superior to the other individuals. In fact, I find it incredibly patronising that the characters’ goal is to ‘come to terms with their sufferings’ just by voicing them, as though merely understanding one’s own disorder equates to a magic wand that will fix everything. This is an utterly unrealistic expression of harrowing mental conditions. Just because Blessed has firsthand experience with these does not make her qualified to educate others on how they should deal with their illness, nor is she best equipped with the knowledge to do so.
I imagine that some of these features were intended as metaphors and symbols, such as, indeed, the imagery of rats making their nests around a childless woman or the lonely man and his dog. Yet, they are nowhere near powerful enough, if this is the case. These remain just as that: images and metaphors, passing and weightless. They do not aid comprehension or intensify meaning; instead, they are simply mere literary devices. In fact, these images are highly devaluing when considering the outlandish manner in which Kate Tydman (playing Nerys) interacts with the doll, cuddling and singing to it, after confessing to her miscarriage, then stating “Imagine if I was actually like that!”. I imagine that this is inspired by and wishing to counteract stereotypes of hysterical, crazed women attached with miscarriages, yet if this true, this is a most counterproductive decision. This melodramatises and misappropriates the sufferings of women who would, indeed, react in this way, belittling and invalidating their emotions as ridiculous, laughable or “crazy”. Such a performance aims inextricably to present the “truth” behind mental illness, and so one must be incredibly conscious of the exact messages one is conveying. Everything that one presents to the audience in such a performance is a critique or analysis of mental illness itself, not on our understanding of it. Our thinking is only challenged or exposed by extension of what we are presented. It seems here that Blessed has deemed her own experiences as objective.
Similarly, on the topic of dog imagery, I understand that possessing a dog is crucial to Rosalind Blessed’s story of overcoming her own mental struggles, as her dog was a great help in getting her through them, but whatever truths and meanings are hidden beneath the text, whatever subtexts and personal significances there are within this play, I can only consider what is presented to the audience through the performance only. I can only comment on what the performance itself, without any external aid, is communicating. If this significance can only be understood by asking the play’s creators about it, the performance clearly has not been informative enough alone. Inspiration and execution are different things.
I do think that there is a good degree of potential in the concept of this performance, but the actual content and the way it is presented simply do not match up. It is clear that Blessed wanted to make both an uplifting and engaging performance, but this is not what the text is allowing for, especially given that there is nothing uplifting or positive whatsoever until the very last five/ten minutes of the performance when we receive that vacuous speech from an all-knowing Ma. I would advise Blessed look into theories surrounding artists using performance as a grounds of therapy, whose work aims not to produce message-based theatre or performances to lighten the mood on the dark and painful matters — these objectives often resulting in vapid and generic pieces of theatre — but simply to express their own story in a way that brings both healing and closure to them as well as understanding or relatability to their audiences. If Blessed still wants to retain this dramatic quality in her work, however, she should consider other structures and designs that complement the messages and aims of her work. For this, a good example of an artist to look into would be Bryony Kimmings whose work remains fictional, uplifting and entertaining whilst successfully and realistically communicating personal experiences of trauma and suffering.
Using so many characters to voice her thinking, Blessed also finds herself in a trap of needing dynamism and variety in her text. This exposes itself in the way in which she organises the monologues, some presented as though stories with beginnings, middles and ends, others as improvised thought tracks; some presented as duologues to ‘shake things up a bit’, so to speak, and bring a new energy into a structure I would imagine to have been deemed samey and boring, and, finally, the last monologue, Ash’s, being the most theatrical of all, presented through a certain theatrical performativity involving role-plays and broad gesticulations. Again, it seems as though the deeper into harrowing material we go, the more theatricalised and fictional the performance style becomes.
I have deliberately refrained from writing too much about characterisation and acting abilities in this review. I think that such abilities were, overall, rather good across the actors. I just found them to be too melodramatic in places, with Helen Bang’s (playing Sarah) exaggerative nervousness or Wilkin’s rather loud disinterest in everything. I hope it is clear here, however, that this is rooted more in conceptualisation and editorial/directorial misguidance, as opposed to any fault of the actors themselves. I will say, however, and I could be very wrong, but it did appear as though Pybus fell asleep at some point during another actor’s monologue, whilst leant against the wall; either he needs to train himself to stay awake whilst on stage, or he needs to find a way of staying animated in a way that does not draw too much attention but that still suggests he is engaged in and part of the action.
“An inarticulate and ill-conceived performance, convoluted and falling far from its aims.”
Photography Credit: Adam Trigg.