Hazel McHaffie


Art and mental illness

Friday evening and here I am in the transformed square of the beautiful old Medical School where I so often patrolled in days of yore. The Medical School transformedI’m here to watch The Fantasist by Theatre Témoin. I met the producer, director and principal actor at the symposium on Thursday – another young company who combine art and storytelling around themes questioning contemporary social issues; other artists beating a similar drum to my own. So I simply had to fit this one in. And they very generously gave me a complimentary ticket. What an honour.

Theatre Témoin brought this production to the Fringe last year to excellent reviews, so it’s saying something that they’re back again this year with the same show. Playing to full houses again too. As with Killing Roger, The Fantasist includes puppetry to excellent effect. (It’s been a revelation to me understanding the special role puppets can play in these dramas, and a pleasure to see them employed with such skill.)

I’m on the front row so don’t miss a thing.The stage The basic story? Louise has bipolar disorder. We first meet her tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep. Her mental anguish is captured by inanimate objects doing crazy things and, though many in the audience reacted with laughter, the build up of atmosphere touched a more raw nerve for me. It’s scary entering the world of the mentally ill, and I’ve long been aware of the fine dividing line between sanity and insanity. I’ve hovered perilously close myself at times!

For Louise, the boundaries between the real and the fanciful grow increasingly blurred, and she becomes entangled in a relationship with a seductive stranger who opens up a world of exhilaration and magic to her. When he’s around she feels alive and ‘good‘. But to the onlooker, the destructive elements of her fantasies are all too evident.

Throughout, the metaphor of speed is used most effectively. The changing rhythm of the thrumming heartbeat. The calm slow empathy of the community psychiatric nurse, Josie, (‘my jovial jailkeeper‘) is a perfect foil to Louise’s manic behaviour and speech. Julia Yevnine – who plays Louise – is herself French and her ability to gabble deliriously in both languages is impressive: a furious game of ping-pong played on an express train. When depression strikes, the pain is palpable, Louise is immobile; Josie, and Louise’s friend, Sophie, speed up.

The endless seesawing of moods, the exhausting demands, the threat to relationships, the constant dread of falling into a dark chasm, the stranglehold the illness exerts, all are captured most effectively. At once mesmerising and impressive. And authentic, because Julia is utterly convincing – helped perhaps by her own firsthand experience of the illness (her mother has it).

I have several friends who have bipolar disorder, and I know the devastation it can wreak on families, so I’m delighted to see this illness portrayed so sympathetically, and to know from review comments that audiences are moved by the messages. This is exactly what we need.

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