This was a difficult show to watch. Probably the most difficult. It was sold as ‘a love story about depression,’ I didn’t think it through. Not even nearly. Not even half.
After seeing Bryony Kimmings Ltd in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, both in London and again in Melbourne, I was excited to see her and her partner, Tim Grayburn explore this issue. Her mixed form aesthetic which
includes storytelling, metaphor, song, dance and research presents an autobiographical whole, a narrative that functions despite and perhaps because of its constructed pastiche. A veritas cabaret of 2015. This is partially enabled by removing the theatrical artifice; costume changes are conducted on the stage, dramatic choices are explained to the audience, and the research/information collected and presented is framed by her personal experience within the narrative – and in this instance his personal experience too. Although the show could use a little polish and performance precision, the result is a profound piece of theatre. A performed social awareness campaign. Storytelling with a message. Daggy poetry. Adhoc prose. Within this simple presentation is a complex gem that communicates itself brilliantly, defying the inner Brandis and defeating the idea that arts value lies purely in its decorative or entertainment potential.
They walk on stage and sing to the audience about mental health. They have baskets on their heads and maracas in hand. She tells us this is a love story… but hang on, whhhoaaah, wait it doesn’t make sense right because there are no happy endings when it comes to mental illness. A love story implies there is a happy ending? Or maybe that’s a Rom Com. I’m getting mixed up. I thought a love story was a marriage of ideas, of a shared path, a happy ending… but Romeo and Juliet is a love story and Orpheus and Eurydice and Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca hmmmm. Despite these early warning signals Kimmings who is noticeably pregnant highlights in form that redemption and a ‘happy ending’ for their story at least, is a possibility. Ok. It starts off well … a dance number, a pash, a cute little boat metaphor, finding pills in his backpack…
Half way through Fake it ‘til you Make It, Bryony and Tim are dancing together, a repetition of the happy romantic dance they performed earlier on. However, this time round Tim has a bag over his head (there is an ongoing motif that Tim wears a series of masks throughout the show) and as Bryony tries to dance with him, he stumbles. His gestures become stuck- he doesn’t remember the moves. She peers at him smiling encouraging, searching to see if he’s still there behind the mask, behind the glazed eyes and the broken steps. The tears start to stream down my face, and I am engulfed in my own sadness. I am crying for the man with the illness, the woman who is trying to reach out and love, and for myself. For the person who didn’t know what to do. For feeling so helpless, so damned helpless and for his anxiety to manifest and eventually become my own.
I was with a man who was my best friend for 11 years. He was also really unwell for the second part of our relationship. He hid his illness, his clinical depression and anxiety from everyone for a long time – except for me. He oscillated between believing our relationship was at fault/that he must have fallen out of love with me/that this was the reason he no longer wanted to be intimate and thinking maybe there was something else going on. Confused by the sensations of numbness, feeling cold inside, guilt, knots in his stomach and mind, constant fatigue, inability to concentrate and suicidal thoughts he sought solace in music, drugs, booze and surfing. He would fake it until he made it, and his success would eventually dispel the demons. I was his friend, lover, supporter and biggest fan. I tried to get him to dance with me, but my encouraging smile only reminded him of his own pain.
For the next 10 minutes of the show I bury myself in myself and my darkness. I don’t want to participate in what is happening on stage. I am shaking, my breath is ragged and I am wracked with grief that threatens to overwhelm entirely, and for a couple of moments- it does. I don’t want to be reminded of the years of sadness and fear. I signed up for a love story not a horror. I catch glimpses of him in a mask of knotted snakes, of a goats skull, of death and the underworld, of hearing her talk through his thoughts of suicide, where he would do it… I cover my ears and my eyes. I don’t want to see. I don’t want to hear.
I can feel the play coming to the end, and I look up to see Tim without a mask, vulnerable and happy, his face lined with strains of something I recognise. The last moments of Fake It ’til You Make It play are about sharing the responsibility for his mental health, Bryony and Tim managing it together. Although I can get behind the idea that men with mental illness need to know that they are not alone and isolated, I’m still not sure if the love story is a misrepresentation of the fact. Perhaps it should be called a fear story, or a pain story or a human story. And then I remind myself that it is not my story, it is theirs. Besides, love stories are not just about happy endings, they are about overcoming obstacles too; little ones, mini ones, daily ones. And managing a ‘mental illness love story’ is just that. Millions of acts by the partners, family or friends, and the person themselves. My/our story become about more about the obstacles and less about the love. Could it have been different had there been more support, more public awareness, more love?! I really don’t know. What I do know, love story, happy ending or no – issues surrounding men and mental health are incredibly important and need to be publicly addressed. Despite the sadness of my experience of Fake It ‘til You Make It, I am glad Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn made this show. I salute their bravado in presenting something like this, combating through personal action the systematic cultural silence surrounding male mental illness.
Please see www.bryonyandtim.com/www.bryonykimmings.com for more information about this show and their other work.
Photo curtesy of Southbank Centre/Theatreworks and Richard Davenport.