Broken Colour, a new work written by Nina Pearce, directed by Michael McCall and presented by The Blue Room and Same Cat, tackles the subject of mental illness and coupling in the modern world. It aims to take an insider’s look at a manic episode, to make it understandable to outsiders who have never suffered such a crisis of the spirit.
Pearce deconstructs the interior of a manic episode just enough to take the fear out of it for her audience without demystifying it completely. She expresses the strange poetry that exists within the mind of a person suffering from this type of mental illness, from seeing colourful auras around people, to drawing significant connections between events and thoughts which most “normal” people would chalk up to coincidence, and applying personal meaning and symbolism to random objects. She juxtaposes this against the story of a couple who are at an impasse over starting a family, and attempts to draw a parallel between the two stories, which I’m not sure came across fully in execution.
Two women, a psychiatric patient, Eliza (Caris Eves) and an artist, Olivia (Hannah Day) are linked together by Gareth (James Helm), psychiatrist to the former and husband to the latter. Gareth is very patient and tries his best to navigate the difficult waters that these two women present, and Helm’s earnest and straightforward performance is just right. Caris Eves as Eliza quite deftly moves in and around a difficult character; she’s fluid in her transitions in and out of reality. Hannah Day gives plenty of attitude as a woman who won’t be easily bound by traditional roles and tackles some very wordy philosophical dialogue as she picks apart society, the art world, and human nature. Nina Pearce, the playwright, plays several characters throughout, some comical, some straightforward, some threatening.
Ultimately I thought the piece was ambitious, but suffered from its verboseness. At times I was reminded of Chekhov or Ibsen, whose works are populated with characters trying to find meaning by mulling over philosophical and social issues while action and plot take a back seat. Pearce covers a lot of ground in her writing through her characters voices, and a lot of it is obviously very personal and autobiographical. For this, she is courageous, especially in revealing her own struggles in the program notes.
As for sound and vision, The Men from Another Place have created a subtle ambient soundtrack that suits the mood of the piece and Iona McAuley’s set includes an interesting installation piece made of strands of colorful bits of twisted paper hung from a rectangular frame above the rear portion of the stage to form a kind of curtain. It’s a piece that could have been made by either the artist or the patient and inhabits both worlds. Lighting by Andrew Portwine moved between a comfortable wash during the couple’s scenes and dramatic colours during the patient’s scenes.
Shining a light on mental illness and taking away the stigma attached to it is certainly a worthy idea, and putting it in a dramatic context is one way to do that. In this case, perhaps the work would benefit from further distillation to clarify its essential parts so that the drama at its heart can make its full impact.