Depictions of mental illness and depression in literature and on the stage involve a number of preliminary choices. Will the play inhabit the narrative from the perspective of the sufferer or of those who are part of that person’s social penumbra? Depending on that initial choice different options open up. If the viewpoint is that of the victim then a bait-and-switch strategy is available whereby we begin to perceive ‘reality’ through the eyes of someone who has a very different take on the world – and then we come to realise that this a projection not shared by outside observers. This can be used to dislocating effect or – more positively – to float the possibility that mental illness can in certain circumstances offer a unique enhancement or nuancing angle on everyday life that is not necessarily negative, but parallel, to ‘reality’. If we take the second available route and dwell on the external view of family, friends and medical professionals, then the focus comes to rest on the chorus of bafflement, frustration, pain and attempts at sympathetic understanding and curative intervention from those outside peering in.
The signal achievement of Day of the Dog is to combine these two approaches at one and the same time into a pity, poignant, yet occasionally funny meditation on what happens in a family when one member simply disengages from the processes of ordinary life.
The play is jointly devised, written and performed by three actors as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. It offers a non-prescriptive, accessible and thought-provoking account of a demanding and difficult topic, doing full justice to its complexities, while finding plenty of scope for humour and finely calibrated observation of credibly dramatised family dynamics. The results are at times both troubling and affecting. It is a concentrated, short piece (currently coming in at a little over half-an-hour) that would benefit from further development and expansion; but it fits the small, intimate space of Etcetera Theatre (above the Oxford Arms) very well. Poised over the seething lunchtime street bustle of Camden High Street we were given a lot to absorb and reflect on at leisure.
It’s a very simple layout….the set is dominated by a rumpled bed of which Tracey Emin would be proud, which is covered with the detritus of someone who has not shifted for a while.. phone, laptop, unfinished meals, discarded clothes; and at the back of the stage there is a table with more domestic paraphernalia. Lying in bed as we begin is Polly Weston (Jeannie Dickinson), whose life has come to a halt. Despite previous outward confidence, success at school, a variety of friends and a boyfriend, suddenly she has lost all self-confidence and self-belief. She can’t sleep, she feels alienated from her own body and is unable to complete assignments for school and other small tasks that formerly she would have taken in her stride. At bottom she feels fear and panic at what is happening to her.
The first sequence of the play concerns her mother’s attempts to get her up for school and when that fails then simply to understand what is going on. Karen (Gina Radford) is a harassed single mum juggling work, running a home and bringing up two teenagers while trying to maintain her own network of friends and a social life too. The family is completed by younger sister Harriet (Francesca Burgoyne) who alternates between resentment and empathy towards her sister with a very different young person’s perspective on what is happening around her.
In a way nothing happens. There is no plot as such, rather a sequence of anguished conversations, arguments and protests played out over several days that explore the fraught struggle to find meaning and understanding and resolution in the face of the becalmed, paralysed stasis that is depression. What we can take away from the play is a clear sense that indirect, oblique approaches usually have more mutual benefit than traditional appeals to rational causation and cure.
Karen’s desperate struggle for a clear explanation runs up against the fact that mental illness can sometimes have no specific external trigger or cause. Is it Polly’s absent father? Is it her boyfriend whom she has just spurned? Is it something at school? Karen tries to batter her way in from outside through applying the obvious surface criteria and then becomes angry and aggressive in the process. Harriet fares much better from a more innocent, naïve perspective through simply offering to play board games with her sister or sharing her room for a sleep-over. For a while these gestures of empathetic presence allow Polly to emerge from her shell in an unthreatened way. The two sisters have a joshing familiarity with one another from which genuine good humour emerges. There is no recovery here, just the recognition that there are better strategies for coping than others.
The one facet of the picture that really seems to be missing in the current script is the analysis and intervention of outside specialists. While the introduction of medical and professional expertise in the form of a fourth person would break down the intimacy and intensity of the family circle, the topic could still be examined in a discussion of advice or analysis provided. It is dramatically implausible as things stand that Karen would not have brought in medical or other professional support. Moreover, to add it in now as a subject for family debate would provide another angle of approach to the subject without requiring deference to traditional notions of medical diagnostic supremacy.
The performers manage to cover a wide dynamic range in a very short space. Radford moves effectively between empathy and anger and frustration at her daughter very effectively. She also earns audience empathy for her portrayal of a parent at full stretch of stress, just about keeping all the balls in the air day by day. Burgoyne gives a remarkable impersonation of a young girl, finding a combination of gaucheness and innocent energetic enthusiasm in her body language and handling of text that is very endearing. Dickinson’s role is the most demanding not least because her acting needs to embody a condition that is impalpable and resistant to understanding, while displaying it to us in a way that allows us to see and imaginatively engage with its symptoms. She shows us at one and the same time the interior terror of an intelligence that knows it is dealing with something that it cannot process, and the frustrated emotions of someone who cannot explain to others why she has become unable to function, and finds all of their well intentioned interventions unhelpful and aggravating.
There is an open-minded integrity about these conversations and characterisations that is highly impressive and which deserves a wider audience in a larger (but not too much larger) performance space.