Music: Jocelyn Pook
Director: Emma Bernard
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Mental illness is one of the last great stigmas of modern society, it’s also one of the oldest. From the horrifying tales of Victorian asylums to modern definitions of PTSD, those who struggle with a mental illness have often found themselves on the fringes of society. Jocelyn Pook’s new show Hearing Voices sets first person testimony to music while using drama and projection to show us what it’s like ‘living with psychosis and hallucination’.
Bringing to life five different stories, Hearing Voices combines the experience of different degrees of mental illness from people who continue to suffer, as well as those who returned to normal lives after treatment. Beginning with a brief insight into the assessment process in which a doctor tests for signs of patient orientation, recent memory and remote memory recall, evidence of new learning ability and use of judgement, this 50-minute show then tells a semi-chronological story of five real people in different eras.
It begins with Agnes Richter, who at the age of 62, had been in a European state asylum for 11 years by 1906. Her song, composed by Pook, is constructed from words Richter embroidered onto a jacket over several years of things she wanted to remember, including the phrase “I plunge headlong into disaster,” while images of the finished item are projected on screen.
This is a technique used throughout this cleverly arranged show, using original evidence in the form of letters or interviews, creating an appropriate musical accompaniment, partially-dramatising the writer’s experience, and using video projection designed by Dragan Aleksic to illustrate it. So using Phyllis Williams’ writings about the voices in her head during a month in 1934-5, Pook’s music builds and builds to a claustrophobic pitch which starts to drown out Phyllis’ own voice – sung with feeling by Melanie Pappenheim – becoming increasingly sinister and confusing as Phyllis’ experience overwhelms her.
Two of the pieces are purely instrumental and rather than recreate the experience, the original voice of the interviewee is played, which Pook uses to inspire the changing pitch and shape of the composition, played expertly by Susi Evans on clarinet, Preetha Narayanan on violin, Laura Moody on cello and Pook herself on viola. One contributor talks of being possessed by the devil who was initially charming but increasingly threatening, to which Pook adds creeping lightness in the music. Her laugh is then repeated over and over sounding more maniacal each time, and the music has a jerky quality as it tries to replicate that sound.
The use of interview recordings as voice-overs is much more frequent among theatre companies now, and the result is often of variable quality, but here Pook gives a masterclass in how to incorporate real experience in a meaningful and constructive way, so by the end the audience has a better insight into the different degrees of mental illness and considerable empathy for the fear and disorientation it causes suffers.
Hearing Voices uses innovative technique to tell a series of short stories that will go some way in helping to destigmatise mental illness. Perhaps the balance occasionally tips too far into humour and a section of sung euphemisms for madness is superfluous, but this subtly constructed show should have a significant impact, showing how different creative practices can be seamlessly combined to address a long-standing social concern.
Runs until 15 July 2017 | Image: Contributed