Edinburgh Festival 2014: Mental health takes centre stage

A wave of confessional shows is spotlighting a previously taboo area

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The Independent Culture

With 3,000 shows sharing a city for a month, overlap becomes inevitable at the Edinburgh Fringe. But when artists converge on a particular subject en masse it suggests a degree of cultural significance or urgency. What, then, to make of the number of shows at this year’s festival concerned with mental health?

This isn’t just a case of trawling the listings and circling anything remotely relevant either. Serious, renowned theatre-makers – solo artists Bryony Kimmings and Kim Noble, performance duo Ridiculusmus, playwrights Chris Goode and Duncan Macmillan – are among those looking at mental health in one way or another.

Interviewing these artists, I expected fighting talk about funding cuts, postcode lotteries and the prioritisation of physical over mental healthcare: David Cameron and Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt have both promised to put the two on an equal footing, but last month, Labour’s Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger went on the warpath: “Mental-health services are deteriorating under this government.”

There’s some of that, certainly: talk of the highest suicide rates in Europe, with men under 35 more like to die of suicide than anything else; of one in four Brits experiencing some kind of mental health issue in the course of a year; of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in the UK, somewhere between 8 and 12 per cent.

“Mental health provision in this country is appallingly bad,” says James Leadbitter, an artist and activist who works under the name “the vacuum cleaner”. “It’s in a really, really shocking state – and has been for a very long time. It’s never received the funding it warrants, partly because it’s seen as the other, something a bit different.” That, he believes, warrants action: “We need to start talking about this. We need to do something.”

That’s why most of the artists I speak to see the overlap as something positive – a sign, as Duncan Macmillan puts it, “that mental illness is losing some of its stigma or that more theatre-makers are trying to find ways to talk about mental health.” Leadbitter agrees, in part: “There’s lots of theatre about mental illness, going right back to Hamlet. What’s often missing in that, for me, is the actual person who’s been through it talking about their own unique experience.”

His show Mental, which takes place under a giant duvet, does just that. In it, Leadbitter recounts his past, detailing suicide attempts, stints in hospital, homeless and under police surveillance by comparing official records (police intelligence files, psychiatric reports) with his own version. “It’s about language and power,” he says – who gets to determine the definitions.

He’s not the only one turning to autobiography: Kim Noble charts his isolation and depression in You’re Not Alone, spoken-word artist Byron Vincent is recounting a summer spent in an NHS psychiatric unit and Bryony Kimmings is working with her boyfriend Tim Grayburn, who has clinical depression, to detail the consequences of his condition on both their lives and their relationship, in a developing show called Fake It Til You Make It.

Leadbitter talks of “coming out of the closet – and I use that phrase intentionally – saying, ‘OK, we’re mentally ill and we’re not ashamed of it any more’. There’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness and if you admit it, you will experience quite severe discrimination as a result.”

Others echo that. Jon Haynes of Ridiculusmus feels mental illness is seen as “something very shameful,” while Kimmings calls it “one of the last taboos.” Autobiography does two things, then. Firstly it takes ownership, hopefully setting an example and allowing others to do likewise. “This is Tim’s story,” says Kimmings. “It’s the story of a man who kept his depression hidden for three years, but it’s also quite a common story. You start to realise that you’re not alone.”

Secondly, it helps to disrupt irresponsible and inaccurate portrayals, be they the “sensationalist headlines” that Leadbitter loathes or the “glamorised” and “fetished” accounts that Duncan Macmillan sees in art and drama.

Macmillan’s out to counter that culture with a more mundane and, he hopes, recognisable portrayal. Every Brilliant Thing tells the story of a son who, as a young boy, starts a list “to combat his mother’s depression”. As her condition continues, he keeps trying to get through. “Narratively we might expect him to succeed, but it’s ultimately more complicated than that,” says Macmillan. Like Kimmings, it also takes into account the experiences of those indirectly affected by mental illness: friends and family, partners and carers.

That mental illness is widespread also suggests something ingrained in the wider culture. It’s here that writer-performer Chris Goode will focus. His storytelling show Men in the Cities is a vast network composed of narrative fragments. Eventually, it zooms in on two: a young gay man’s suicide and the killers of Lee Rigby. By linking sexuality, mental illness and extremism – delicately, it should be said – Goode explores the barrier between normative behaviour and outsidership, suggesting that our consumer-capitalist society is based on a spin-cycle that spits people out if they don’t fit the mould.

‘Fake It Til You Make It’, Forest Fringe, 9 August, 9.15pm; ‘Men in the Cities’, Traverse Theatre,  to 24 August, times vary; ‘Every Brilliant Thing’, Summerhall @ The Roundabout, to 22 August,  12 noon; ‘Mental’, Pleasance Courtyard,  to 24 August, 6.30pm (www.edfringe.com)