Theatre – Minding Madness

Venue: Giant Dwarf, Redfern
Written By: Joy Roberts
Directed By: Corinna Galliano

There is still stigma and confusion around the topic of mental illness and Mental Health Month held in October provides an opportunity to raise awareness of, and encourage support for, those experiencing mental health issues. This year, as last year, the theme for MHM is Share the Journey, and Minding Madness asks us to share the narratives of adults who as children lived with parental mental illness.

The performance, created from word-to-word interviews, and presented by an ensemble cast, is both profoundly moving and disquieting. From the beginning, the five child/adults (Antony Press, Cormac Costello, Debra Bryan, Jackie Nader and Olga Olshansky) arranged on stage in a silent tableau, convey their personal isolation and their collective “difference”. At the same time, their fanciful and dreamlike costuming suggests not only alienation but also aspects of childhood trauma and its effect.

One figure wears a white mask and striped jersey of a circus act, another is draped in a diaphanous white veil and two of the figures wear contrasting costumes, red dress with white rose, white dress with red rose. The clown image suggests that living with parental mental illness forces the child to wear a mask and that the notion of love is a trick, the veil (and later frequent sound track) references the Holy Mother, an ironic reference, perhaps to the fact that many children act as mother to their siblings, and the red and white queens suggest violent/aggressive and passive/aggressive parental behavior respectively.

We see from the objects the figures clutch and value the ways in which children try to deal with the problems of being mistreated. One clutches a white bear, believing it to be real, and why not, as the real parents are so unreal. Another finds comfort and connection in collecting soft toys while another whose real life is deprived of joy hugs a music box. These magical objects have two purposes: they are something that is the children’s own in an emotional climate where they are ignored or controlled, and they express the hope of rescue from their sad circumstances.

A common theme emerging from the recollection of a childhood spent with parental mental issues, is that of rejection by other people. At one point, the group comes together to single out a child, and pointing relentlessly identify her mother as “crazy”. At another point, the group seems to reach out to the child but then turns away, not prepared to translate their sympathy into action. Children see this rejection by others as their own fault, feeling that there must be something wrong with them. If only they could be good enough, or clever enough, the world might accept them, connect with them, love them.

It makes sense that the performance comes to a close with the cast ranged along the front of the stage reiterating the heartfelt assurance that “you have done nothing wrong” and “it is not your fault”. We thank the interviewees for having shared their painful journey through childhood and the cast for recreating the reality of those journeys so unforgettably.

October 18, 2018.

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