Features Published 15 August 2015

Black Dogs and Lizard Skin

Natasha Tripney on beautiful black dogs and the strange process of reviewing shows about depression.
Natasha Tripney

How do you give a star rating to someone’s experience of mental illness?  Seriously. How the actual fuck do you do that? As a human being? If you think about it for a second it’s such a bloody weird thing to be required to do. On any level. To slap four stars on a person’s depression. To pick holes in someone’s account of their anxiety.  Not wholly sold on your break down, mate, I’m afraid: just the three stars from me. It’s part of the process of the Fringe of course. It’s how this machine works. But knowing that doesn’t help shift this uneasy feeling, this niggling, needling thing sitting high up in my chest.

This year there’s a fairly large number of shows exploring mental health issues in formally inventive ways, so I’m thinking about this more than ever. But it’s something I think about every year.  There’s Bryony Kimmings and her partner Tim Grayburn exploring the impact of his clinical depression on their relationship in Fake It ‘Til You Make It at the Traverse, but she’s far from being the only one. Musician Brigitte Aphrodite is performing a joyous, moving glitter-filled show at Underbelly and there’s a whole programme of discussions and performances focussing on the relationship between health and art, The Sick of the Fringe, curated by theatre-maker Brian Lobel and supported by the Wellcome Trust.

It was Brigitte Aphrodite’s My Beautiful Black Dog, a show about her own recurring bouts of depression, that made me pause and think about what it means to rate something so personal, the implications.  Her show isn’t alone in blurring the line between theatre, therapy, exorcism, but it does so in such a way it makes you draw breath. As a piece of theatre, of performance, it is chaotic and raw as all hell but it’s also piercingly honest and warm and large of heart.  At the end people were lining up to hug her. There other people hugging each other. Aphrodite had tears coursing down her face, a stream of mascara and glitter; and she wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes – how do you step back and star that, for fuck’s sake? Something that is clearly so deeply felt and integral to a person’s sense of themselves.  Despite the tears, the majority of people in the audience were smiling too. It was messy, but it was necessary mess, good mess. In fact the show it most reminded me of was Caroline Horton’s Mess, in so many ways, particularly in the way it concludes – or rather doesn’t: the fact that there’s no other way of ending the show, other than with another song, because this is a story which doesn’t have an end. There’s no way of saying whether her dog might come back, nor whether its tail will be wagging or its teeth will be bared, when it does so. The show is bigger than itself, than the Fringe, and its energy, the atmosphere it generates in the room, is as much a part of the experience as anything else –  it’s neither  possible nor desirable to unstitch the one from the other.

I’ve talked already – over at The Stage – about the bubble of the Fringe, the way it bends time. It can be such a head-down and elbows-out experience, being up here, everyone focussed on their show, their own schedule, their own deadlines.  It’s exposing too, with so much is at risk, financially, creatively, professionally. You probably aren’t doing all that much sleeping either which doesn’t help. Or eating. You’re probably drinking a little bit more than is wise. Inevitably emotions float closer to the surface; people’s skin is thinner.  I’ve a friend who once said that what Edinburgh needs is decompression chambers, safe spaces, places to mend oneself. I think she has a point.

I wrote a massively mean review the other day about a show which, to my mind, committed the worst sin up here, of cynicism and sloppiness, of just not fucking caring about what it was they were saying and doing, but while I stand by what I said I’m still thinking about those words, of the weird, distasteful glee I felt writing them and I’m not happy with myself. It’s how the machine works. I know that. But still. Every time I glimpse the glitter on my wrists – this shit doesn’t wash off – it makes me think about how important it is, while up here, to remember the human being behind the microphone, the guitar, the glitter, the face paint, the lizard costume – to consider the impact of words, of language, to exercise compassion, to take better care of each other and ourselves.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.


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