Something hits you hard.
Your body reacts in the only way it knows how to.
A complex pattern of electric signals create the sensation of pain. There’s a sore spot that you mustn’t poke but need to, a scab you mustn’t pick but must. Something broken inside.
Sometimes, you step outside the whole situation and look at yourself with a kind of delicious thrill at what you’ve done, at the smashed whole and the rubble and all the torn bits that might never knit back together.
Mental illness is nothing at all like a broken leg (although both deserve medical treatment and empathy, which is how this whole metaphor limped into being). But trying to put it into its own irreducible mysterious category isn’t helpful either. It’s part of human experience. The stats say it affects one in three people, and those are just the ones who trust their GP enough to tell them about it.
Lies Pauwel’s performance feels like a dark, brooding, softly spreading bruise. It’s assembled with the precision of a pharmaceutical formula: seven young people with psychological vulnerabilities, three fashion models, one priest. They’re here to… I’m not sure exactly, but it feels like they’re to express pain. And mess. And the simultaneous universalness and specificity of that feeling of being in turmoil in a world that’s also in turmoil, shouting out your troubles to a playlist (from Daniel Johnston to Radiohead) of sad, angry songs, as the stage around you spins into the clothes-decked chaos of a teenager’s bedroom.
The same people who say that mental illness is like a broken leg generally also like to emphasise how un-weird it is – which correspondingly means it can be alleviated with blunt, bland measures like the NHS’s predilection for dispensing Citalopram prescriptions with no accompanying therapy, or by institutions dispensing ‘Duvet Days’ or puppies to pet. It’s not a conversation that makes space for the embarrassing, uncomfortable realities of living with a mental health condition, or the endless grey areas between mental health and sadness and grief.
Truth or Dare revels in the all-encompassing weirdness of having a non-conforming brain, or of feeling too sad or too strange to fit inside narrow pencil lines. It creates intense visual metaphors and sonic landscapes and jagged bits of spoken poetry as each participant takes to the microphone. Giant digitally-printed images form the backdrop to each part of the show: varying in tone from an austere historical painting, its black-clad figures echoed by the performers donning black velvet and ruffs, to a sci-fi style alien planet, to a vast rubbish tip which the performers shuffle in front of, dressed in rags.
As it progresses, looking at the stage is like looking at one of those photos of a hectic 3am street scene that everyone compares to a Renaissance painting: people stumbling together or alone in the foreground, through pools or light or dark corners. Pauwel’s approach is levelling, making room for skills-sharing as well as experience-sharing. Hence the three fashion models parade down invisible catwalks, and are joined by adolescents who relish their chance to strut and pose in a creative array of assembled costumes. And everyone gets their turn to be alone in the limelight, too. One young woman struts a guitar and sings in a Minnie Mouse costume, in a ludicrous parody of futile attempts to get people to cheer up. A fashion model in wings and tutu is suspended from wires like Peter Pan, but she’s too close to the ground, and her saccharine beauty becomes something more like a struggling fly, not quite able to get off the ground. A boy in a suit caresses the air to the jagged sounds of Daniel Johnston’s music.
There were so many bits of Truth or Dare I loved, so many images that felt true and present. And so many other bits that felt directionless, or even formulaic: Pauwels uses verbal prompts to get the participants to talk about their experiences, and the monotone recitation of these exercises into the microphone sometimes felt a little fill-the-blank pat.
But maybe these frustrations are built in parts of experiencing a work made with non-professional participants, where everyone needs to be accommodated, and heard.
Sometimes I feel that other participatory work I’ve seen in the UK instrumentalises the experience of a live performance as a quite straightforward way of letting people who don’t generally have a voice speak – and that’s worthwhile in a sense, but the (presumably Auguste Boal-influenced) emphasis on testimony is limited too. It’s consciousness-raising, but it also suggests that someone’s only power to move you is tied precisely to their own autobiography – an autobiography they’ve already had to refine and dwell, painfully, on in doctor’s offices or benefits meetings.
Lies Pauwel’s approach to participatory work is more fragmented than that, more responsive to each person’s individual experience, more interested in feelings than facts. It doesn’t offer answers or calls to action or pleas for love and understanding. It’s weird, dark, messy and unsettling – like crawling inside the mess of someone else’s head, or floating along their arteries as their blood surges towards a fresh wound.
‘Truth or Dare…’ was on at Unicorn Theatre from 19th-21st October 2018. More info here.