Demi makes it very clear at the start of the performance that she is a selfish person – she’s being selfish right now. Her partner Aaron is onstage, sat behind a table at the back, boredly scrolling on his laptop. He’s here because Demi needs him here. He’s not a performer and he doesn’t like being in public spaces, but at this time her needs are greater than his. He’s agreed to be on stage only if he doesn’t have to do anything, and would prefer not to be looked at. It’s quite difficult not to be looked at if you’re onstage, says Demi. She would describe that issue as unresolved.
But the show itself undercuts the claims its preamble makes – certainly, the care guidelines printed on the free sheet that she implores us to take on our way out, and its offer of an attentive ear if you’ve been affected by the performance, is quite the opposite of selfish. And there is a palpable sense of love, care and connection between Aaron and Demi, even while Aaron plays out his reluctant supporting role. In her baggy t-shirt, Demi sparks, bounces and flops round the stage, dancing and stuffing bananas in her face, or engulfed by a faded yellow beanbag, head and arms comically poking out of its holes. It’s warm, silly and rude.
It’s this that makes Life is No Laughing Matter digestible, as Demi recounts her periods of illness; a desperate message sent to her brother, a visit to the doctor, a surprise visit from her brother, another visit to the doctor, not telling Aaron, telling Aaron, getting a dog. Nandhra is rigorous in framing her subject in wider, political terms, bookending the piece with litanies of structural factors – neoliberalism, colonialism, racism, more – which shape depression, taking down the discourse around mental illness with scalpel-like precision. Who gets to talk about these issues? Who is seen to be affected, and who gets treated?
This influences our reading of her personal experiences. The visits to the doctor are fraught with anxiety – faced by the judgemental gaze of a white man, she careens down tangents and stumbles on her words. He prescribes regular exercise. When she’s seen by a female Asian doctor, she relaxes, but when bringing up the subject of medication is told a categorical ‘no’, and the doctor suggests marriage instead. Nandhra’s message is clear: it is not just white men who are dying from depression, and there is a refusal to properly identify and deal with mental illness in Asian (and other) communities, both from within and without those communities. There’s no easy cure, but a gifted milk carton filled with holy water isn’t going to cut it.
It’s difficult, when depression is so hard to talk about in the first place. Nandhra tries to articulate the experience with ocean-based metaphors which collapse in on themselves. Metaphors don’t work, she says, because we don’t have adequate language. Some things are even more difficult to say. in the performance’s thorniest moments, she tells us about her uncle’s suicide, and tentatively wonders if taking one’s own life is, perhaps, ok for some. Selfish, maybe. But maybe that’s alright. Her mother doesn’t speak about it (no language), doesn’t want Demi to include it in the performance. But she’s selfish, remember, so she does.
Ultimately though, this is a performance which is fed up of talking. Conversations, we’ve had. So many conversations. What Nandhra wants is treatment which is as universally accessible as depression is universal. Underneath the charm and the silliness, there is rage and resilience. Sometimes the selfish thing is the thing you have to do.
Life is No Laughing Matter is on at Summerhall until 18th August. More info and tickets here.