Fly: a theatre project deals with mental illness
Director and author: Michelle Roberts
Hurtle along Padstow Road until you reach number 186, park in a convenient cul-de-sac and stroll up to ‘The House’. You will be greeted politely at an unassuming desk and given a program of exquisite design on a sheet of A4 paper. As the show begins, you are invited to head to the backyard, where a path is picked out in lights. You trudge across a sprawling backyard studded with tussocks of grass. Three harpies without wings or claw, one male, 2 female, welcome you into a glowing marquee.
Fly is described as ‘an innovative, eclectic, post-modern physical piece of theatre’. Writer and Director Michelle Roberts and her company have set out to ‘encourage conversation, initiate change and begin to eliminate taboo’. Their triumph is that they have unequivocally succeeded. They have devised a theatre piece portraying mental illness. Yet this show does not leave the audience feeling depressed. Rather, the sophistry of their art outweighs the heaviness of the subject matter.
This show plays on archetypes: the characters are not named and do not follow a traditional narrative arc. The show begins with direct questions for the audience. Then it progresses to relate the experience of one woman who gave up on love, eating and hope. Images are created and presented that enable the audience to step inside the experience of depression. Using original music composed by Michelle Roberts and voice-over interludes, the show weaves an immersive experience. It also addresses the issue of change and personal responsibility for a person experiencing mental illness.
Lead actress Madeleine McMahon demonstrates her mastery during the affecting ‘I’m stuck’ sequence. This reviewer, sitting in the front row, less than a step away from the performer, felt obligated to respect the authenticity of her pain. Dance and movement pieces effectively portray the torment of the heroine. She moves like a dancer and fellow cast members Grace Edward, Pri Hemmadi and Jamie King-Turner show impressive physical theatricality.
The show leaves it open for the audience to mediate their own meaning. One character portrayed by Luke Goss, who has been sitting in the audience for most of the show, appears towards the end. Is he another person or an aspect of the heroine’s psyche? Luke explained that the precise identity of his character changes daily and the script leaves it open to interpretation.
The standard of performance is faultless, as is costuming, hair and makeup. The marquee is perfectly lit. The performers capitalized on the audience size – four on the night this reviewer attended. Blankets are thoughtfully provided for snuggling away the autumn chill.
To take this show to the next level, it is suggested music could be used to create some light relief to counterbalance the heaviness of depression. This would also perhaps recreate the roller coaster effect of the human journey through life from happiness to euphoria, down to sadness and back again.
During an informal Q & A chat after the show – part debrief, part friendly university student party, one audience member said he was reminded of a friend who suffers badly with depression and asked ‘What do you do?’. This after-show chat rounded out the show beautifully. Seeing the cast members stretch and laugh, swathed in blankets, cleansed away any residue of heaviness from the show’s subject matter and enabled the audience members to leave feeling intact but enlightened. More appreciative of the shadow side of self where depression resides. An offer of a cuppa after the show wouldn’t go astray though!
Driving home, my theatre companion confided that she had experienced despair like that of the heroine. It is perhaps no surprise that eight of the nine creatives involved in this show are students or graduates of Grifffith University’s applied theatre program. They have applied their skills to create a work of art which both educates and evokes compassion in the audience. It is a satisfying, illuminating and intimate piece of theatre.