Writer/Performer: Mark Lockyer
Thirty years ago, Mark Lockyer was an actor in demand. Adrian Noble tapped him to move to Stratford-upon-Avon to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, and by 1995 was playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet in what one critic described as an “excellent, nervously fantastical” performance.
“Nervously fantastical” is an understatement of what was happening in Lockyer’s personal life, however. In a day off from the RSC and sitting on the banks of the Avon, he was visited by the devil, Beelzebub – calling himself “Bees” and dressed as an American surfer dude.
Bees was a manifestation of Lockyer’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and in this frenetic hour, the actor explores the depths to which his illness took him. From purchasing hundreds of flowers to impress a first date to filling his bedroom with saucers of holy water, Lockyer’s behaviour started getting more erratic.
Lockyer’s script recognises that he was the last person to recognise how ill he was, his unreliable narrator only providing hints of the damage he was wreaking on those around him. And initially this works against the piece, as Lockyer’s onstage persona reflects some of that self-destructive energy.
As his tale progresses, though, Lockyer begins to let his audience in to the reality of his condition. Two suicide attempts show the kindness of people, from nurses to policemen, who acknowledge his distress with calm respect – but on several occasions he is let down by a lack of adequate mental health provision. A lack of beds, a secure ward doctor who assumes that, as an actor, Lockyer is faking illness as research for a role, and an overly aggressive hostel manager pepper his often shocking tale of a descent into his own personal hell, occasionally visited by Bees.
Even when Lockyer, who has been struggling with finding a way to describe how his illness makes him feel, has a breakthrough in art therapy class, he is treated as a disruptive element, rather than being acknowledged as having achieved a personal milestone.
And one can sort of understand why that might be, for such is the intensity of Lockyer’s manic highs that they can subsume everything around them. That’s just as true here, where some of the subtleties of his script can get lost amid a sea of caricatures that range from farcical to acutely acerbic.
But still, this is a play with a happy ending, with Lockyer returning to the stage not only with this one man show, but with a return to the RSC. Lockyer rushes the final moments of the play, denying the audience the chance to celebrate his achievement in managing his ongoing bipolar condition.
As his own piece of art therapy, Living With the Lights On represents a personal landmark. As a piece of theatre, it may not hold the same power for its audience – but any piece which can show what life with bipolar can be like to a wider world is to be congratulated.
Continues until 17 October 2020