Interview: Caroline Horton, star of Mess

Caroline Horton in Mess
Caroline Horton in Mess
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CAROLINE Horton is bringing the story of her battle with anorexia nervosa to the Fringe in a ‘play with songs’ that strikes a fine balance in its moods

CAROLINE Horton is remembering the day, at the prestigious drama school École Philippe Gaulier in Paris, when the founder asked his students to tell a story about themselves. She had a story in mind – that of her French grandmother’s wartime romance – but when she stood up and opened her mouth, a different story came out: the story of her battle with anorexia nervosa.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” she says. “I thought Gaulier would tell me to sit down immediately. The fact that he didn’t made me think that this thing – which I’d been worrying was uninteresting or bleak or sentimental or self-interested – was perhaps just another story.”

And that was the very beginning of the show called Mess, which Horton is bringing to the Traverse for the Fringe. Regarded as an important up-and-coming theatre-maker, she won the Stage Award for Best Solo Performer in 2010 for You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, a show inspired by that first idea, her grandmother’s love letters. After a successful tour in this country and a visit to the Adelaide Fringe, she knew it was time to make that other story. “It might be a disaster but at least I’d get it out of my system,” she says, with a half smile.

Which brings us to a rehearsal room in South London, where Horton is Josephine, one of a trio of fictional friends, with fellow actors Hannah Boyde and Seiriol Davies, trying to put on a show about anorexia. Mess has been written and devised based on Horton’s experience of the illness, for which she was hospitalised while at university. “Each of the scenes is rooted in something that happened, but they have become provocations to these three characters who do their own naïve, slightly bungled, occasionally beautiful version of events.”

Horton says she probably suffered from anorexia long before anyone realised. She describes it as “a very gradual process of finding solace and calm and order and control” in a regime of obsessive calorie counting, dieting and exercise. In Mess, her well-meaning, long-suffering friends are condensed into a single character, Boris (Hannah Boyde).

“It’s as much a story about Boris, the person who exists with a person suffering, as it is about Josephine. Boris is that person who just wants Josephine to be OK, and says the wrong thing, but tries every tactic he can think of. My very brave mum and dad came to see an early work-in-progress and they loved Boris, they said, ‘That’s it! Nothing we said was right!’ And of course it couldn’t have been, because their presence and their love made it more difficult to get on with this thing I was constructing.”

She has taken the challenge of representing the illness on stage very seriously, and experts in anorexia from the Maudsley Hospital have contributed to the play’s development thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust, but this “play with songs” strikes a fine balance in its moods.

“It felt really important to me that it shouldn’t be po-faced,” Horton says. “There was something about the glass wall which the illness builds around a person that needed smashing.”

So alongside the trio’s friendly bickering, there are occasional bouts of close-harmony singing and a set involving acres of towel and a big fluffy duvet. But the madcap antics vanish just as quickly when Josephine stares hynotically at the apple that may be her only meal of the day, unable to eat a single slice. “They being playful, they’re trying to make this play well, and getting it wrong, and it’s funny, but sometimes the illness enters and the laughs just stop. After he saw it, a friend of mine said that beautiful silliness and searing depth shouldn’t work, but there’s something about it that does. It was a relief to hear that, because finding that line has been a real game.”

Horton describes the process of recovering from anorexia as an addiction she had to give up little by little. “I remember there being a kind of grieving process for it. It felt like a physical battle to eat the food. The first afternoons I was allowed out of hospital, I had to force myself not to jog. There was a feeling of having this gap, that you’re not quite sure who you are, because it had taken up all your headspace. Maybe part of giving it up means recognising what it gave you. It made everything else not matter.”

Although she is now well, she is not sure that an anorexic ever completely recovers. “I wanted to say something about what recovery means. It doesn’t mean that someone is suddenly a healthy weight and it’s all fixed. That’s not to say it’s always a problem, it’s just that it’s always a presence. At first I thought I’d sorted it, but I’ve gradually come to accept that perhaps it’s always going to be a part of me.”

After graduating from Cambridge, she chose École Philippe Gaulier instead of a more conventional drama school because “it felt right – I went with my gut for one of the first times in my life”. Gaulier is a playwright, director and master clown who trained under Jacques Lecoq. His past students include Théâtre de Complicité’s Simon McBurney, and the actors Emma Thompson and Sacha Baron Cohen. “Drama school taught me as much about myself as about theatre. Gaulier spent the first year saying to me that I was terribly nice and terribly clever and that it was really boring, that I could be much bolder and take more risks.”

In 2009, she performed in a solo show for the Fringe, Almost 10, an English adaptation of an autobiographical story by Frenchwoman Raphaele Moussafir about a nine-year-old girl coping with the death of her best friend. She says it gave her the confidence to write a one-woman show of her own. “I remember Gaulier looking around the room and saying, ‘There are so many stories in here, in all of you, and they’re worth telling’. It was a wake-up call to me. Raphaele’s stuff felt so special because it was autobiographical to some degree. It gave me confidence, I suppose, to draw on stuff that I knew.”

A training in clown, she believes, can provide a lightness of touch on the most serious of subjects. “It’s about the comic and the tragic sitting very close to each other, and what they reveal about the person stuck in the middle, trying to deal with them both.

“One of the things I really loved about studying clown was that it seems so essentially human, that baffled human being not quite knowing what to do with something that’s incomprehensible to them. And then the optimism that things can be OK in the midst of that.”

• Mess is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2-26 August