I’ve been thinking a lot about Headlong’s People, Places & Things. Because that’s what I do: I take something like a book, a play or a point of view that other people find entirely unobjectionable and I twist my brain into pretzel shapes, trying to figure out why this or that ‘left me cold’ or didn’t get me in the way it was ‘meant to’. So it was with watching Jeremy Herrin’s now-touring production of People, Places & Things.
I identified a lot with the main character of Duncan Macmillan’s play about rehab. And the next sentence isn’t going to be “Hello, my name is Rosemary and I am a…”. I mean I identified with her perspective on life. Her approach to the world that includes an inability to just see the tourist-ready fun of a trip to the Far East and an interrogation of why the 12 Steps involve religion. When she sulkily throws Foucault at the group leader, it reminded me how I’ve always fucked up being in therapy by trying to second guess what the therapist would think three sentences from now (what she was probably thinking was: please stop trying to second guess my response three sentences from now).
On the surface, Herrin’s production is a beautiful shiny beast, full of clever stage craft and a BIG ISSUE that ensures many of the audience will either directly relate to it, or find something mildly risqué in a play about DRUGS AND ALCOHOL. Taken on spec, without over-thinking, it is instantly easy to see why the play is heralded as a modern classic. Compared to most of the work on stage, it presents the rarely-used aesthetic of the medical world and punctuates it with music and lighting that make the act of being in a theatre roughly 60 times more exciting than normal.
Yet strip away the cool, edgy design and fascinating topic, and the most interesting parts by far are the rare moments when the work attempts to delve into the protagonist’s psyche, pulling on the low-hanging plumb bobs weighting down her mind; exploring, for example, the interlinking identities Nina/Emma/Sarah/Lucy assumes in her work as an actress and in her life (with the UK tour, this dimension is given a meta-injection with Lisa Dwyer Hogg performing the role Denise Gough floored people in). The infrequent times when she gets to voice the feelings that underwrite her addiction and unhappiness are intriguing.
This is what makes it so unsatisfying that the response N/E/S/L both receives and buys into is the one so frequently given to introspective depressives: don’t think so much. Remember, the play says, that Road Runner only falls when he looks down and realises he should fall, and so does. And there, served as an ace, is my number one disappointment with humanity: the idea that the route to happiness is not to think. In ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’, David Foster Wallace records realising that the secret to being a top-flight athlete appears to be ‘not thinking’. Like, Road Runner, you don’t want to freak out at 6-3 5-4 in the Wimbledon Final, so you’re best off keeping your mind free from thoughts of the worst case scenario.
Sounds sensible, right? Especially in the moment of attempting to accomplish something impressive and potentially terrifying – like, indeed the formidable act of beating an addiction. This viewpoint is arguably exactly what is needed in moments of crisis like the one she is going through. But Foster Wallace didn’t give the article that tongue-in-cheek title for nothing. There is something heart-breaking about the suggestion that success and happiness are linked to putting down the Foucault and trying not to notice the rampant inequality tearing lesions into the world. If of course, like N/E/S/L, you are at the point where these thoughts are physically and mentally destroying you, then learning how to control this is crucial – and I don’t want to sound here like I’m undermining the severity of her addiction and the importance of her getting better, but something about the ease of which the ‘don’t think’ line is given both by those with her best interests at heart (the therapists) and those without them (her parents) bothered me unduly. I occupy myself with the continual battle of trying to identify the times when I’ve fled too far into the labyrinth of my own head without leaving a trail of string to get out. But why, oh why is the answer always: ‘don’t think’. Why not: ‘think, but not to the point where it does you great harm’?
Being like Tracey Austin is a virtue when there are Grand Slams to be won, but what about other human endeavours? We love and praise introspection and analysis when it produces symphonies, advances in DNA research or the contents of the Tate Gallery. Then we reject it when it says the unwanted truth at the dinner party or in the newspaper. If you never look down, you might not notice the necks of those you inadvertently stood on to get to your heightened position of success, and society will only be filled with tunnel-visioned individuals focused on doing anything apart from having a good long think about the world around them. Without people ‘thinking too much’ we’d likely never have the Chekhov N/E/S/L performs at the start of the play, or the Hedda Gabler she shoehorns into group therapy. We’d never even have, come to think of it, People, Places & Things. And we certainly never have people attempting, uselessly or otherwise, to drill holes into its surface.
People, Places & Things is touring until 18 November 2017. Click here for more details.