Finding my Dirty Paradise
These are the thoughts of Chairman Vile. The current estimate that one in four people suffer from mental ill-health at some point in their lives are a gross underestimate. Either that, or my friends and family are a statistical cluster, or the sensations that I have every time I fall in love are unique and special, just like my momma said. After chatting with Isabella Goldie, chair of the Scottish Mental Health Art and Film Festival, on my radio show this afternoon, I considered that even the category of "ill-health" is arbitrary, and that the problem is not curing people, but understanding that the surface of other people, which we experience as abrupt mood shifts, ill-temper or irrationality are merely manifestations of deeper emotions and experience.
I caught the first show of the SMHAFF at the Tron: Dirty Paradise, written and directed by Leann O'Kasi. O'Kasi is a spectacular director - she salvaged the prosaic script of Mayfesto's Betrayed, lending its clumsy politics a taut pacing and passionate depth. Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and informed by discussions with Hearing Voices Network, Dundee, Dirty Paradise is an intense, dense hour. There's a poetry in this monologue, emphasised by O'Kasi's ability to engage personally with the audience. But, since I attended a preview show, I have avoided the need to star rate and categorise.
Chairman Vile is, rather, in the mood to pontificate. The representation of mental illness in Dirty steers clear of the theatrical stereotypes punted by works like The Wonderful World of Disassocia. It is precise, diagnosable. Maria hears voices. This impacts on her ability to do things taken for granted - talk to her parents, snog, hold down a job, develop a meaningful relationship.
O'Kasi has delved into the anxiety behind the illness: the real problem is not the voices, but Maria's inability to communicate, confess her secret. It's the reason why that "one-in-four" statistic is as useful as a political poll taken on election night. Nobody wants to admit the truth. The specific illness suffered by Maria may not be familiar, or even common. Its consequences are.
Where the play and I disagree is in its optimistic conclusion. For Maria, a phone call heralds the return of love: another person willing to care, to listen. Often, the problem is the lack of hope, of love, the failure of the other person to care, or even consider. My own associations of unrequited love with mental ill-health are not purely flippant. There's a fairly respectable tradition that supports this - because it is usually expressed in poetry, the beauty of the language frequently hides the horror of the experience.
I might have a personal distaste for theatre that is too explicit in its preoccupation with issues - fortunately, the SMHAFF hasn't applied a tick-box to Dirty Paradise and allowed O'Kasi to pursue an idiosyncratic fusion of British earthiness and Brazilian exoticism - I still believe that it is an appropriate space to discuss and engage ideas. The SMHAFF is taking on all the arts to get its message across, and Dirty Paradise is just part of a tapestry that encourages consciousness raising about mental illness. Most importantly, Dirty Paradise is a reminder that those difficult emotions are not just nonsense, to be rejected because they are inconvenient, but a common, shared, human experience. Maybe, in the words of Michael Gira, who is currently reviving the SWANS, love will save you. But it won't save me.