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Mark Shenton: How theatre is grappling with depression

Mark Lockyer in Living With the Lights On. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Last month, Lyn Gardner asked, in advance of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, for people to look out for each other [1]. She wrote: “For some performers, Edinburgh will trigger a mental health crisis born in part of the fact that there is nothing worse than finding yourself at the biggest party on earth when it seems as if everyone else is having a ball except you.”

My problem with Edinburgh is that I often feel like I’m at the wrong party: that somehow the great shows are being discovered elsewhere. In August, I was all set to make the trip to Edinburgh, hoping that this year might somehow be the exception, when a different type of health crisis intervened – my heart wouldn’t take it, literally, and, when I should have been taking a train to Edinburgh, I was in the cardiac unit at St Thomas’ Hospital, having a stent put in.

I’m not saying the two events are related, but the one spared me the anxiety of the second. However, if I had gone to Edinburgh, it sounds like I could have spent a lot of time seeing shows about mental distress.

As Gardner wrote in a piece for the Guardian [2]: “This year there are so many that a new award has been introduced for shows about mental illness. Talking about it, particularly depression, is the new coming out. As Vicki Browne says at the end of her show Help: ‘Don’t keep it a secret’.”

Mental health problems are a lot more visible on stage, as this year’s festival proved, yet plenty of performers deny the suffering of others and sometimes themselves. As author Matt Haig recently tweeted: “[The] only reason I highlight people denying depression is to show stigma exists. Because a key part of all stigma is to deny stigma.”

Few performers have been as public about their struggles as Ruby Wax, who turned her story into a kind of performance art and public health message rolled into one. When she performed Sane New World in 2015 at the St James Theatre (now the Other Palace), she spoke of the shame and stigma of depression.

But there is another thing that’s also shaming and paradoxically often comes as a way of avoiding the pain, namely addiction.

We can become addicted to many things – alcohol, drugs, sex, food – to numb the pain. And as someone who openly admits to an addictive personality – my theatregoing passion is a sure sign of it – I’ve actually found recovery from the depressions that used to regularly afflict me by participating in a 12-step programme to overcome addiction. The two, I discovered, are intrinsically related. By fixing the causes, rather than the symptoms, I’m now in recovery from both.

And the powerful message is that it can be fixed. That’s also one of the heartening lessons of Living With the Lights On [4], actor Mark Lockyer’s astonishingly intimate and honest stage memoir of his own struggles with bipolar illness and addiction – one that took him from a leading player with the Royal Shakespeare Company to a homeless man who found himself in Broadmoor Hospital. The show is touring again this autumn and is unmissable.

One of my favourite musicals of this century so far is Next to Normal, yet to be seen in London, which won the 2009 Tony for best score. It deals vividly and poignantly with a mother who seeks treatment for bipolar illness and the grief over the loss of a son that exacerbates it.

With songs like My Psychopharmacologist, it’s not an obvious subject for musical theatre success, yet on each of the nine times I saw it on Broadway the show stunned its audience to rapt concentration and identification. We are not alone.

Three musicals currently on UK stages – two from the early 1970s and a new one – prove it again. The 1972 musical Pippin, being revived at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre [5], is one of the most profound and moving treatments of depressive illness I’ve ever seen in a musical, as it shows its title character struggling to find a purpose in life.

Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 musical Follies, a revival of which has just opened at the National [6], concludes with two of its leading characters suffering onstage breakdowns.

And Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s Groundhog Day [7], which ends its Broadway run this weekend, is surely a portrait of a man stuck in an all-consuming depression: when you are depressed, every day feels the same, that you are stuck in an endless cycle that you can’t escape and can’t change. Even his attempts to kill himself are thwarted.

But he does eventually break free of it – partly through music, partly through selflessness and kindness, as he learns to help others, not just himself. And that’s a central message, too, of recovery in addiction groups: that we’re not alone on that journey and help ourselves by helping each other.