Live Theatre, Newcastle, 24 Oct – 10 Nov
It’s a brave move to use Gothic horror as the backdrop for a story exploring mental health problems – you’ve got to be pretty confident in your approach. However, writer Paul Sirett and the production team at Live Theatre have managed to pull it off.
When I first heard about Clear White Light some months ago from Live Theatre’s Emeritis Artistic Director, Max Roberts, I admit to feeling slightly nervous about the planned association of Gothicism and mental illness. However, mental health problems really can be genuinely frightening. And we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring that.
After all, if we don’t understand the sheer terror and despair that some people experience, we risk undermining the severity of symptoms and therefore the need for more mental health support.
The problem with previous depictions of mental illness in the horror genre is that they demonise the individuals living with these difficult symptoms, rather than the symptoms themselves. This is where Clear White Light differs.
It is absolutely appropriate, in my view, to touch upon the apprehension still held by many people today about psychiatric hospitals and the patients who use these services – as long as we challenge them. Because these apprehensions still exist. And it’s more powerful to openly challenge these ideas rather than pretend they’re no longer prevalent in society.
The Girl on the Train did this really well with the lead character, Rachel, being our ‘unreliable narrator’ – an alcoholic, therefore not to be trusted. Yet we were proved wrong. Similarly in Homeland, CIA Agent Carrie was doubted continuously due to her bipolar episodes, yet again, we were proved wrong – she was always on the right track.
In Clear White Light, Alison, played by the brilliant Bryony Corrigan, is seen nervous and apprehensive as she spends her first night as a student nurse at Newcastle’s St Nicholas Hospital. It’s an imposing place (the set design portrays this well – as Newcastle’s St Nicks, as we locals know it, is indeed a big old imposing building) and so the backdrop and nervousness combine to set us up for something quite nail-biting.
However, we soon learn that the patients at the hospital are not the villains of the piece. Nor are the staff or, refreshingly, the big old imposing building itself.
Rather the villainous themes that run through the play are trauma experienced at the hands of others, NHS cuts and, significantly, the dark and distressing days experienced by many people living with a mental health problem.
The juxtaposition of a character’s personality and life story, against the catatonic state that their illness traps them in is also refreshing. We were shown the vibrancy of the character, Maddie, which is hugely contrasting with the concept of catatonia.
Catatonia was discussed, as was the sadness of no longer being able to communicate with someone who was severely unwell. But there were no indulgent catatonic scenes reminiscent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. That was a really important perspective for me. The impact isn’t necessarily about the symptoms and how they look, but about how they can change people’s lives and the lives of those around them.
The cast is outstanding – I’ve already mentioned Bryony, and you can’t go wrong with Joe Caffrey and Charlie Hardwick – Live Theatre stalwarts who seemingly nail it every time. They are supported by Phil Adele, Dale Jewitt and Alice Blundell. And to top it off, there’s live music and song too – featuring Charlie’s gorgeous vocals and musical direction from Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell of Lindisfarne – who also perform live. It is also the first production to be directed at Live by new Artistic Director, Joe Douglas.
But I need to stop there – as I don’t want to be sharing the spoilers!
It’s a gripping play, incredibly moving and, importantly, it challenges our pre-existing ideas about psychiatric wards and mental health problems. Definitely one to watch!
The show will be performed at Live Theatre, Newcastle until 10 November. Book your tickets here.