On World Mental Health Day Director Joe Douglas talks about Clear White Light and the importance of theatre to help getting people talking about issues such as Mental Health
A couple of months before I started at Live Theatre, Max invited me along to a reading - a new play with the songs of Lindisfarne in it. As the train zipped along the East Coast down from Scotland - passed the holy island that gave the band their name - I listened to the songs. Lindisfarne are fairly comfortably ‘before my time’. I’d grown up with Gazza and remembered him leaping about on THAT version of Fog on the Tyne but apart from that my knowledge of the band was pathetic. On arriving into Newcastle with the a cappella harmonies of Clear White Light ringing in my ears, I knew this music was different and demanded to be heard.
I wanted to come to Live Theatre because they do things differently. Paul Sirett’s play is a great example. Part socio-political commentary, part gothic thriller, part musical celebration, all the seemingly conflicting elements coalesce and create a whole. As we follow the young nurse, Alison, on her first night shift on an all-male ward, the cracks begin to show - personally and in the hospital around her. Paul has been faithful to the original story arc of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. In both the original story and our play, the ghoulish, intensely odd relationship between the twins is seen through the eyes of an outsider. The question of what’s real and what’s imagined will keep audiences guessing - it certainly had us scratching our heads at times in rehearsals.
The music elevates the drama and fits beautifully. Paul has selected a great selection of Alan Hull’s songs - including some lesser known tracks - to best express the story. I love the way the songs progress. Within the world of the play they emotionally heighten or comment on the action, but as a good night out for the audience...of course you want Lady Eleanor to close Act One! As a writer, Paul wants to entertain you and he wants to make a few important points along the way, leaving you something to chew over. I love plays that do that, I’m always searching for plays that sit at that elusive equilibrium points between “art” and “entertainment”.
Directing Clear White Light marks six months for me as Artistic Director at Live Theatre. In that time, Max Roberts has been totally magnanimous, especially in offering this play to me to lead on. In his role as Dramaturg, Max’s notes and insights have been invaluable. It is very common in European Theatre to have both a director and a dramaturg working on a production together and at this time especially we should be looking internationally for new, collaborative ways of working.
Destigmatisation of mental health still has a way to go, but I can try to help by doing what I do and by directing this play. Clear White Light is set in St Nick’s Hospital in Gosforth, where a young, female, student nurse is about to embark on her first night shift on an all-male ward. The play switches between Edgar Allen Poe-inspired gothic thriller and social realist commentary on mental health provision in austerity-era NHS. All interspersed with the songs of one of the UK’s most underrated songwriters, the late Alan Hull. Alan worked at St Nick’s as a psychiatric nurse just prior to joining Lindisfarne and like many mental health professionals he suffered himself. He was ahead of his time in many ways, including by talking openly about his own troubled mind, telling Sounds magazine in 1972:
"I probably am mad, and everybody else is, but they handle it very well. I think we're all in the same crowd.”
We are in the midst of an epidemic that is life threatening. People aren’t being reached in time, suicide rates are rising. The North East has the highest rates of mental illness in England, with children and young people being severely affected. Men disproportionately attempt suicide. In too many cases, somewhere along the line, there is a failure of communication and understanding. We must talk to each other more honestly.
Getting people talking is what theatre can do. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Live Theatre was because the theatre lends itself to social interaction. The audience is next to the action, the stage fills the room (and therefore your imagination) and if you’re sitting in the cabaret seats around tables, you receive the performance in an especially social way. Strangers start to chat across the tables.
Theatre has always examined Mental Health, we just didn’t used to call it that. From Clytemnestra 2,500 years ago to Alison today, a good play shows us truthful human behaviour - in all its horror or humour - and invites us to examine. We interpret characters’ actions and motivations, we reflect on our own situation, we talk about it. Sometimes there’s a distinct chime. Our 21st century society seems to be gradually maturing into one where honest, open discussion about our minds can take place, without judgement. For too many, it is a matter of life and death. An understanding of the effect of trauma from one generation to the next will only improve our lives and wider society. At Live Theatre, producing new plays like Clear White Light will be part of that change, helping to remove the stigma from conversations. With some cracking tunes and joyful performances to boot.
Joe Douglas, Artistic Director, Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne