Writer: Rose Heiney
Director: Hannah Joss
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
At several points in Rose Heiney’s blackly funny Original Death Rabbit, the typical trying-to-be-sympathetic view of mental health issues is punctured. The concerned expression, eyes to the floor, acknowledging how seriously we need to take other people’s mental health, tied with the unspoken belief that such things only deserve to befall other people.
That’s just one of many acute observations in a script which started life as a 2016 Radio 4 play. Kimberley Nixon plays an unnamed young woman who, on the eve of her 32ndbirthday, is creating a video apologia to explain events in her life.
It transpires that Nixon’s character briefly became an internet meme, after a photo of her in her pink bunny onesie went viral, snapped as she was in the background of a local hero’s funeral. The ensuing brief craze for “death rabbiting” encapsulates so much about internet meme culture: the gatecrashing of solemn events for the sake of a silly photo ignores the meaning of those events for those taking part, just as the reason for Nixon’s character being present in the original photo are ignored by others.
The impact people’s actions have on Nixon, and the effect her character’s actions have on others, touches many points of interest, from the phenomenon of internet shaming to the motivations of those who spout vituperative, life-threatening trollish tweets to celebrities.
Designer Louie Whitemore recreates a horribly, believably dingy London flat, complete with “original features” like moulded cornices and rising damp, to great effect. It is a set which illustrates both the affection of Nixon’s character for the morally questionable output of many white males – from Larkin and TS Eliot to the romantic comedy films of Richard Curtis – and her agoraphobic tendencies.
But while the set provides a visual context for the unfolding story, it is Nixon’s delivery and performance which compels one to lean in. Heiney expands upon her radio script by removing what few side characters it had, turning the production into a mammoth one-woman monologue. And while the narrative device may falter a little on occasion, Heiney’s ability to mix humour and some of the darkest outpourings of a deeply troubled mind never wavers.
The result is a play which ties together the tyrannies of message board moderation, the creation of anonymous Twitter accounts with the express intention of abusing celebrities, the quest for immediate fame and the febrile nature of the gig economy. All of these, Heiney suggests, lend their appeals to those who may have mental health issues elsewhere in their lives. The internet may be a distraction from, or an outlet for, someone’s dysfunctional relationship with the real world, but it is so easy for the net’s possibilities of positive help to be subsumed by negativity.
Nixon’s ability to portray a character that commits reprehensible actions while remaining utterly sympathetic, to elicit an empathic response even in her darkest times, makes this one of the performances to beat in any 2019 list. Original Death Rabbit is an uncomfortable, hilarious, essential play for our times.
Runs until 9 February 2019 | Image: Robert Workman