Living with mental illness presents a daily struggle, and living with someone suffering through it is – arguably – just as testing. In The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, Hannah Silva explores the nature of that struggle, both inside and out, in a structurally daring and challenging production that reminds you how visceral and powerful live performance can be.
By drawing inspiration from Strindberg’s concept of a dream play, in which ‘one consciousness holds sway’ over everything else, Silva creates an intense, Expressionistic world that completely immerses us in Sadie’s fragile psyche while simultaneously revealing the extent to which it exerts control over those living in close proximity.
A loudly ticking clock is the sonic backdrop to a silent couple seated at a kitchen counter, its grey expanse and sharp corners conjuring a mortuary slab or a gravestone; suspended stainless steel utensils add to the chill. After a time, Danny and Kim discuss Sadie in the past tense: she was cold, they say. She’s cold now: dead and gone, mourned but not necessarily missed, her finally realised intention was to remove herself from existence – by retreating, by not eating – so life with her was hard, like the unforgiving edges on display. But Sadie is here, hovering at the edges of their mourning as, we imagine, she might have hovered at the edges of life itself, wraith-like. As the narrative shifts back and forth, the past fusing with the present and with scenes from Sadie’s imagination – hostile hallucinations, words forming on her pale skin – we see her lover and her sister attempting to draw her out, to connect her with the real world, and ultimately failing.
Like a piece of music, or a Modernist painting, the piece gives up its secrets by degrees, the fragmented structure serving not only to convey psychological turmoil but also to allow space for interpretation; it challenges the imagination, encouraging debate and reappraisal in the hours and days after seeing it, and there are pockets of real brilliance that expand and grow the more you consider them. It also allows for an authentic portrait of the reality of living with mental disorder, the eruptions caused by casual comments, moments of tenderness juxtaposed with angry incomprehension. Fiona Chivers’s set design and Gary Bowman’s lighting combine beautifully to evoke the mortuary or the crypt, transforming the domestic space into a hypnagogic realm of half-light and shadows that mirrors Sadie’s troubled mental landscape. The day to day demands of coping make the home as hostile as the outside world.
That moments of unity and sensuality butt up against explosions of frustration enhances the expressive power of the piece; the language of the space, the soundtrack and the physicality of the performances all mix and meld like the structure that holds it together. Food scattered across the stage becomes a visual reminder of pressure points in Sadie’s relationships with Danny and Kim; it crunches underfoot, an audible reminder of the emotional repercussions; Sadie steps into high-heeled shoes without brushing the crumbs from her feet, the psychological discomfort becoming physical as she tries to conform to society’s ideas of femininity. It is Danny’s attempt to tidy up the detritus – after a moment of sweetly rendered tenderness – that Sadie interprets as him trying to tidy away her madness, and which leads directly to a visceral scene of self-harm: lengths of crimson fabric pulled from the tap resemble knife wounds across Sadie’s bare flesh or entrails bound around her slight frame. And rather than the narrative building to the climax of this scene, like the pressure of torment reaching a crescendo, its positioning just after the halfway mark reinforces the fact that mental illness is something that is dealt with every day, enmeshed in the fabric of life.
Silva’s fascination with language – its codes and shapes, limitations and freedoms – creates a script that, at times, resembles music in its motifs and repetitions; moments of inarticulacy hint at distress as much as an inability to fully express the connections between mind and matter. All three actors revel in the play’s ebbs and flows, with Alan Humphrys (Danny) and Elizabeth Crarer (Kim) mixing tenderness and understanding with a restrained frisson of competitive control. Stephanie Greer is a particularly perfect piece of casting, her delicate frame expressing Sadie’s psychological fragility perfectly.
This brave and powerful play confirms Hannah Silva as a truly original voice.