Two Plays by Rosalind Blessed: A voyeuristic exploration of mental health with dark comedy
Blessed’s natural propensity in using humour to portray the anguish of a man allows you to dispel your obligation to hand out your sympathy, awarded at an arm’s length, and replace it with a sense of kinship instead.
In the wonderfully intimate space of the Old Red Lion Theatre, we are kindly advised, on notices leading to the stage, that the play contains triggers with subject matters such as eating disorders, abusive relationships and other mental health issues. An evening which showcases Rosalind Blessed’s gifts in both writing and acting, we are blessed with two of her self-penned plays in a single evening (that’s right, I did that pun).
In the first play, Lullabies For The Lost, we are acquainted with Larry (Chris Porter) who is running late for a lunch with his friends, playing out a rally between his desire to avoid the social engagement altogether and appeasing his friends who have kindly invited him. This back and forth is not only tangibly excruciating but also so unbelievably familiar. What excuse can he make? Perhaps the cat has had a stroke? “Or, the trains are fucked – that’s usually a good one.” Blessed’s natural propensity in using humour to portray the anguish of a man allows you to dispel your obligation to hand out your sympathy, awarded at an arm’s length, and replace it with a sense of kinship instead. This seemingly small conundrum unravels him and exposes him to his own sense of worthlessness.
He is somehow transported into a void with seven other trapped souls. There is one door, but the only way to leave is to solve your riddle. In an interview with the London Student, Blessed reveals inspirations behind her stories, one of which was of a miscarriage experienced by a close friend; Nerys (Kate Tydman) takes on this role with a powerful and cogent performance. Nerys is a hoarder; she barely has any room to move around in her crowded home. Singing in French, supposedly a lullaby, to a featureless, almost ghostly, ragdoll, an eerie and tragic atmosphere is conjured in the silence of the room that follows it. The tension is suddenly cut through with razor-sharp humour – “I’m not fucking crazy; I know it’s a doll”.
We also come across Sarah (Helen Bang), a woman who suffers from loneliness and turns to animals in search of a connection she cannot seem to find in people; Jez (Nick Murphey) who cuts open his leg in order to release a perceived pressure; the experience of suffering from bulimia, paralysing depression and a harrowing recount of time spent in an eating disorder clinic.
Eight stories, however, creates a fog over the details of each one. It feels like a shame that the intense intimacy of the stage space could not be used to amplify the connection between the audience and each of the characters by perhaps cutting down the number of stories by half.
Unfortunately, Hildegard Neil – actor and Rosalind Blessed’s mother – was unable to perform on the night. Director Zoe Ford Burnett really pulls it out of the bag with a simple yet incredibly effective idea. A video of Hildegard Neil is projected on to white cubes, irregularly placed and stacked, creating a unique visual. In a beautiful, tear-jerking message, we learn that we are not that important in the grand scheme of things and thus should let go of our hangups and bad memories. However, one can’t help but wonder if this message has the universality needed to free all of these lost souls.
The colour palette for character costume for this play is fittingly bleak, with the stage awash with hues of greys and white; it is almost symbolic of the ways in which the gloomy stories of these lost souls end up defining them.
The Delight of Dogs and the Problems of People begins with the funeral of a dog that was shared between Robin (Rosalind Blessed) and her ex-boyfriend James (Duncan Wilkins). It is a solemn moment in which this creature epitomises pure love and yet is the focus between two people who stand at polar ends in relation to one another. It is a very realistic depiction of the complexity of toxic relationships that do not fall prey to clichés. In fact, Blessed mocks the fantasy of the helpless female who takes her ex back after a few silver-tongued words in a fantasy scene narrated by James.
The play opens with the smooth, timeless jazz of Miles Davis – reminiscent of a clichéd romantic evening on a first date, the type one imagines would be orchestrated by Frasier Crane. Duncan Wilkins’ excellent comic timing makes him immediately likeable and oozing – much like the eggs benedict that he is cooking – with personality as he drops euphemisms, followed by a smile that reveals his cherubic dimples. Wearing an endearing chef’s hat, he tells us a little about himself in a tone of voice that would make him appear as if he is hosting a live entertainment show.
Duncan Wilkins is also an absolute star. His portrayal of the type of man who thinks of himself as one of the ‘good guys’ is spot on and chillingly realistic. Rosalind’s mastery over her rich, full-bodied voice allows her to use volume in such a way that the audience is taken back by either its authority or by the sheer pain it conveys. It is also most amusing to watch her chuckle in reaction to jokes, along with the audience, almost as if she’s hearing them for the very first time – never mind that she wrote them!
In her interview, Blessed talks about how she writes “in an intimate, almost voyeuristic way. I mean, in Delight of … there is direct audience address and you almost feel complicit and involved in that.” This could not be more glaringly obvious than when Robin gives us a monologue about the details of her relationship with James, in her bathrobe, sat on the bog. Everyone knows the deepest chats you’ll have with your friend are the ones where one of you is sat on the toilet.
Both Plays will be on from 7th January – 1st February. Get your tickets here.
Read Rosalind Blessed’s interview with the London Student here.
Photo Credit: Adam Trigg