Mental health – or to say mental illness – is a subject frequently explored in theatre, particularly in recent years. It is not an easy subject to tackle given the varying forms and degrees of mental illness; the diagnoses are so vast and interconnected that there is still so much misunderstanding around many mental health conditions. There is, even in 2019, a lot of stigma attached to the open discussion of mental ill health and a lot of fear too.
Yet, the discussion is one so exposing of a person’s inner world that it lends itself to the form of a one-person show.
Produced by Apricity Theatre, Open Mic follows the story of Lottie (played by Matilda Dickinson), a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, as she attempts to perform at an open mic night. Yet, just as she is about to perform an original song on the ukulele, Lottie suffers a panic attack. What follows is an honest and raw examination of one young woman’s experiences with her mental illness.
Hattie Taylor’s writing is one of, at times, brutal candour, shining a light on aspects of anxiety and depression in a way that I have rarely seen before. There is a starkness to the writing and how anxiety is examined – through numerous asides, dovetailed by the ‘live’ action of Lottie’s confession to the audience, we see the shades and spectrum of living with anxiety and the resultant periods of depression. As someone who suffers with both anxiety and depression, I identified so strongly with much of the imagery Taylor evokes, of swimming through the ocean of life, desperate to stay afloat and not be sucked down to the sea bottom of numbing depression.
Living with mental ill health is like a war, where you can win some battles and lose others or find yourself at a stalemate. So often, due to the traditional Western structure of many plays, this highs-and-lows nature of life with mental illness is not portrayed in theatre or film. Plays usually offer us snapshot views of the climaxes of action because those are the moments that are most exciting and (apparently) interesting to watch. What we are not given are the plateaus, the boring every day that comes in between the climaxes – the unglamorous and banal. But that is, for so many who suffer with mental illness, what we endlessly must go through and it is in those moments where I find myself most isolated.
Suicide and feeling suicidal are of course subjects that must be spoken about, but looking at the unseen and humdrum aspects of mental illness is needed too. The feelings of being an impostor, that you’re making this all up, that you don’t have it as bad as others because you don’t at that moment feel at your rock-bottom-lowest need to be spoken about too and Open Mic gives voice to those feelings. Sometimes knowing you’re not alone can be a balm for the soul.
Being the sole performer on a stage and holding an audience on your own for around an hour is a huge challenge for any actor but Matilda Dickinson faces the challenge with ease and skill. She portrays Lottie with such a sensitivity and vulnerability but also with a tremendous sense of humour. Under the focused direction of Charlotte Turner-McMullan, Dickinson switches from the vibrant, often jovial inner-life of Lottie into the retiring, mouse-like Lottie that the world sees.
The use of a microphone and lighting changes clearly differentiates the moments when we are dealing with inner-Lottie and outer-Lottie and this clever device shapes the entirety of the person we are seeing expose themself on stage. Lottie is more than just the quietly spoken, shy young woman who suffers a panic attack at the thought of sharing her creative work with an audience – she is also funny, self-critical, brutal and paradoxical. For, like all human beings, she “contains multitudes” as Lottie herself quotes from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. A person cannot solely be defined by a singular aspect of themselves. Though Lottie’s life has been shaped by her anxiety, anxiety is not who she is – it is a part but not the entirety of her.
This is a powerful production which deserves to be seen at Fringe festivals and by wider audiences. The discussion around mental health and mental illness must continue and it is shows like Open Mic that will continue this much needed conversation.