Early in Jarlath Tivnan’s new play about depression, a teased schoolgirl cries in anguish.
Ursula (Kate Murray) watches in horror as a friend, overwhelmed by mortification, throws herself into a woodwork machine. Her despair may be real but it’s flattened to be bright and artificial, seen here on a studio set awash with blue and pink lights. Has Tivnan found perfect transformation of emotion into emoji?
This seems to be the conceit of this vigorous drama, produced by Fregoli. Three individuals re-perform the tragedies of their lives under a blinking sign in Jack Scullion’s set, saying ‘You Could Be Us’. These are either agonising testimonies or reassuring miseries.
Tivnan has it both ways. When we catch up with Murray’s acerbic Ursula, she’s a loathsome janitor frustrated with her CV. A childhood of intimidation is responsible for an adulthood of self-doubt. Other characters are similarly destined but drawn more to entertain – Catherine (Eilish McCarthy), insecure with eczema, speaks in rhyme, while Yule (Tivnan), whose past is overshadowed by death, is given a jingle.
Director Maria Tivnan is well aware of the play’s theatrical inheritances, including Enda Walsh and Mikel Murfi. The discovery that the characters are actually performers within a livestream, replaying their miseries over and over for the low-esteemed masses, suggests the actors’ physical routines as rituals sustaining an illusion. But without tension in their movement, these details often come across as flashy and distracting.
Instead, there are more obvious signs of a false reality crumbling: the sombre glow of Matt Burke’s lighting, and the arrival of a new ensemble member for the live stream. Billy (Peter Shine), who stammers and spins from vertigo, is bound to have a sob story. Instead, he soon grows brash and interrogates his cast mates in a suspiciously convenient character analysis.
This does throw up some discoveries. Ursula’s face flashes with sadness realising she’s crossed over from bullied to bully. In performance Murray, McCarthy and Tivnan are all determined in their portrayals of anxiety and dysfunction. But despite the drama moving from a livestream performance into a relaxed rehearsal room, the deliveries all remain amplified.
That poses a problem, as the production, still and solemn in its final moments, tries to become more complex. Can an emoji transform back into real emotion? The outlook doesn’t look good in a play that insists on showing the nuances of mental illness, but is written only in broad strokes.
You Could Be Us was at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, until November 21st. For more details, click here.