THERE’S a question that lies behind both of these shows, presented as part of this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. It’s the big one, for those interested in mental health and well-being: the question of where normal distress and depression caused by the world we live in, and its pressures and cruelties, shades into serious mental illness, with all the needs and dangers that implies.
Oran Mor, Glasgow *** | Traverse, Edinburgh ****
When AJ Taudevin was a very young theatremaker, back in 2009, her first show at the Arches was a version of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, in which a perfectly sane woman is driven mad by a husband who literally imprisons her in her bedroom.
And now, for A Play, A Pie, And A Pint, she has created a cabaret show about how any sane woman might be driven out of her mind in an age dominated by the Donald Trumps and Harvey Weinsteins of this world, when the casual abuse and harassment of women is both less acceptable than ever, and still oddly ignorable, if the man involved is powerful enough.
Delivered with impressive wit and commitment by Annie Grace, Maryam Hamidi and George Drennan, who sing, dance and act with a will, Hysteria is a slightly scattergun piece that features references to multiple current issues affecting women’s lives, from US healthcare rules to Britain’s notorious “rape clause”; yet returns repeatedly – in the poetic spine of Taudevin’s script – to the image of a room in which women gather, and feel free to tell the truth of their lives.
And if it tells us little that we don’t already know about everyday sexism, and its impact on women’s well-being, it delivers its message with energy and passion; including a strong suggestion that our society should avoid medicalising and personalising problems which are in fact economic and social – and which need not to be medicalised, but to be politicised, hard and fast.
Mariem Omari’s One Mississippi, by contrast, does the same job as Hysteria for a group of Scottish men with histories of mental distress, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts, raising profound questions about the structures of the society around them, which seem at least as strongly implicated in their distress as any personal tendencies towards mental disturbance.
Based on an extensive range of recent real-life interviews, One Mississippi offers us four individual stories, two from Glasgow, one from Belfast, one from Edinburgh, delivered with grace and power by director Umar Ahmed’s four-strong cast.
What they have in common is a near-universal experience of feeling like an outsider both in the community and in the family, whether because of racism, homophobia, or just a failure to fit in with male social norms which are often quite violent and tribal; along with a sense that the parents who should be cherishing and helping young men are often too preoccupied with their own issues – violence, alcohol abuse, fear of social ostracism by their communities – to do more than bark out demands that they conform.
The show’s title remains enigmatic until the final moments, when – in the story of the most outwardly well-adjusted character – it acquires a terrible, poignant power. And in a world where stoical silence about men’s mental suffering is still the norm for many, the voices of One Mississippi – the powerful street Scots of Scott Kyle, the Belfast tones of Mark Jeary, and the Scottish Asian voices of Adam Buksh and Manjot Sumal – have that unique edge that comes with the sound of something long unsaid, being spoken at last.
Hysteria at Oran Mor, Glasgow, today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 17-21 October. One Mississippi has a final performance tonight, at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow.