Theatre interview: Mark Lockyer on Living With The Lights On, his show about bipolar disorder

Mark Lockyer’s show describing his journey from rising theatre star to inmate of Belmarsh prison via a diagnosis for bipolar disorder opens up the world of mental health and masculinity

Mark Lockyer’s show describing his journey from rising theatre star to inmate of Belmarsh prison via a diagnosis for bipolar disorder opens up the world of mental health and masculinity

To all outward appearances, Mark Lockyer’s life was going brilliantly, back in the mid-1990s. He had just turned 30, and had a burgeoning career as one of Britain’s most successful young actors. He was playing Mercutio in Adrian Noble’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Romeo And Juliet, among a string of other roles; in 1993, he had even been acclaimed as runner-up in the prestigious Ian Charleson Award for young British actors.

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Yet Lockyer was becoming aware that within himself something wasn’t right. “I remember,” he says, “going to visit my mother to tell her about the Ian Charleston nomination, and ending up abusing her in the most terrible way. I apologised of course, and I tried to believe it was just the drink talking – I had been drinking a lot, although not all the time. But inside, this was maybe the first time I began to think, ‘this isn’t normal. It’s not part of the normal range. Something’s wrong.’”

For more than two years, though, Mark tried to carry on as if everything was fine, although he was becoming increasingly disturbed. On holiday alone in a pension in Corfu in 1994, he became convinced that the landlady was about to murder him; back home, at work in Stratford, he began to lie, drink and smoke skunk – a strong form of cannabis – with a compulsion that suggested real addiction. In 1996, he finally ran out on the three RSC productions in which he was supposed to be appearing. He was thrown out of his flat, which had sunk into squalor. He saw doctors, but – in his own words – “pretended I wasn’t mad”, such was his fear of being locked up; he ended up homeless and on the road. It wasn’t until 1997, when he found himself in the hands of the police and on remand in Belmarsh Prison, that he finally received the diagnosis of mixed-state bipolar disorder which enabled him – very painfully and slowly – to begin to understand his illness, and to rebuild his life.

So when Lockyer arrives in Scotland this month to perform his solo show about his experience, Living With Lights On, as part of this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, he comes as a man, and an artist, whose life story itself reflects the slowly growing awareness of mental health issues that led to the founding of SMHAFF a decade ago, and that now perhaps makes it slightly less likely that an acute case of bipolar disorder would go undiagnosed for so long.

“I first began to put together ideas for this show around 2000,” says Lockyer, who first performed it in an improvised style, from notes rather than a script. “Back in 1997, when I was in a secure unit following my diagnosis, a judge with an interest in mental health issues had given me three years to try to get well; and one day I was in an art therapy class, still feeling dead inside, when the teacher asked us how painting made us feel, and a guy next to me said – “it makes me feel all illuminated, like I’m living with the lights on.”

“That gave me the title; and although it was left in a drawer for more than ten years, after those first few performances, until Ramin Gray of the Actors’ Touring Company asked me to revive it last year, it’s still more or less the show I put together then, transcribed into a script. And of course, the audience response does mean that it still varies a bit, from show to show – people sometimes arrive late, or shout out, or leave, and I always respond to that.”

The latest production of Living With The Lights On – first seen at the Young Vic last year – has been acclaimed by audiences and critics alike; and it takes its place, this month, in a Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival that has plenty to say about the silence that still often surrounds men’s mental health problems, with the CCA in Glasgow hosting a Men’s Mental Health Day on Saturday 14 October, and Mariem Omari’s latest show One Mississippi – inspired by interviews with men suffering mental health problems – premiering at the Traverse next week.

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“I think there are particular issues around men’s mental health,” says the SMHAFF’s arts lead Andrew Eaton-Lewis. “The strong, silent stereotype of masculinity is still with us, for many men, and this year, for instance, we’re showing a very interesting film about the mental health problems suffered by the actor Cary Grant, throughout his life. But we do like to maintain a balance. This year, our theatre programme also includes Julia Taudevin’s new show Hysteria!, and that looks at how sexism affects women’s mental health.”

Lockyer is also interested in linking his show to the wider life of our society, not least in his sense that his own struggle with mental illness, and with the alcohol he abused in a desperate attempt to medicate it, can never end in complete victory.

“To stay well, I always have to make sure that I rest well, eat well, exercise, take care of myself. I have to acknowledge that I can never smoke skunk again, and that I’m a recovering alcoholic.

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“So in the end, I don’t think this show is only about mental health or bipolar disorder. It’s about choosing to live, and wanting to live, rather than to destroy ourselves through whatever kind of destructive behaviour. It’s about hope, and about getting better; and I hope that makes it a show for everyone, whether they have ever experienced serious mental illness or not.” ■

*Living With The Lights On is at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, 17-19 October, and the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 21-21 October. The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs from 10-29 October, www.mhfestival.com.