Who is the sanest of us all? Public irrationality and private suffering

Charmian Savill reviews the theatre production Anweledig by Aled Jones Williams

Anweledig Production Image

Anweledig production image © Frân Wen

Every decade or so, a piece of art on the subject of depression emerges, that can provoke laughter, tears and the reformulation of previously held ideas. Anweledig (Invisible) is one such work: a very funny, incisive, tragic and ultimately uplifting play and production. Aled Jones Williams’ writing is full of resonant imagery, muscular and surprising. The play was developed through an invitation from an eminent psychiatrist, Professor David Healy, for Cwmni’r Fran Wen to consider research material documenting patients’ experiences in the old Denbigh mental health hospital, with a view to developing a theatrical production which might challenge the stigmas attached to mental illness

The scenography of the production, by Gwyn Eiddior, presents the audience with a grey block wall with digitised sea imagery projected onto it, and a central, small jetty. Sam Jones’ sounds of the sea gently wash over the action like a complicated heartbeat. This jetty is, in turn, both an internal and imagined space as well as a real place for the main character: Glenda, a woman having a breakdown, portrayed by Ffion Dafis. Sara Lloyd’s direction is taut, inventive and beautiful. As well as playing Glenda, Dafis also embodies the protagonist’s husband Huw, her best friend Betty and others, with very effective timing, irony and comedic verve. Movement work by Eddie Ladd generates the sense of the character being on the edge, compelled into a vertiginous choreography that also encompasses regression, resistance and growth. Dafis gives the performance of her life, paying precise attention to minute details of vocal nuance, rhythm and physicality. Seventy-five minutes flies by.

Art provokes questions and make us connect to our previous experiences, of both life and art. This production propelled me into that ‘spider’s web’ of associations: Kate Roberts’ novel Tywyll Heno (1962), which I read as a teenager, before I knew depression existed; plays by David Edgar (for example, Mary Barnes, 1978), Sarah Kane (4.48 Psychosis, 2000), Anthony Neilson (The Wonderful World of Dissocia, 2004); the unsettling visual impact of paintings by Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch and Van Gogh; Damien Hirst’s Venetian extravaganza Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. All these works challenge and destabilise the sense of what is real. So does the ‘the no-man’s land of a long-stay ward’, as it is described in Anweledig, where the onlooker/spectator/patient contemplates the ‘self I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind’ (Kane, 4.48 Psychosis1). These works offer reminders of how art and (in)sanity can connect so profoundly. In the aforementioned plays, therapists use, or encourage, art, to help characters reach out to aspects of their selves, and to others. At one point of Anweledig Glenda says:

Creu dawns yda ni i drio mynegi be’sy’ tu mewn i ni. A (sic) mae o’n help. Mae symud dy gorff yn nes ati’n amal na geiriau. …Y nghorff i yn ei symudiadau fel petai o’n trio fi arall ymlaen.

Creating a dance helps us express what’s inside us. It helps. Moving your body gets you there more often than words… It’s as if my body’s movements are me trying on another self.

Three of the plays cited propose dancing as a form of release and return to a renewed self. It is odd that funding for the creative arts is being slashed in schools and universities, given the rising level of mental health problems among young people. These cuts to arts provision are but one indication of a dysfunctional and unhealthy society. The very word ‘insanity’ is provocative: might it mean a person’s so-called madness is a form of being that is deep inside what we term ‘sanity’, not outside of it? Insanity may be seen as a form of rejecting an intolerant, cruel, oppressive, negligent and insensitive system. Edgar’s Mary Barnes asserts this, and it is implicit in Kane’s 4.48 Pyschosis. Anweledig is another such play of resistance: it depicts an insane woman stubbornly surviving and healing, by making the people around her look, listen and see clearly, refusing their statements of denial and evasion.

Mary Barnes in Edgar’s play draws with chalk, all over objects and surroundings, ‘making connections between people and things’. Anweledig’s Glenda makes connections through her silence and solitude first, and then her dance, and so begins her journey to re-connect with both herself and those around her. At the beginning of the play she regresses to an infantile stage, like Edgar and Neilson’s protagonists. In order to begin her journey, she locates herself imaginatively by the sea, and in early family experiences. The sea-sounds form a comfort blanket and a provocation. Also like characters in Edgar and Neilson’s plays, Glenda is briefly struck dumb, her thoughts tumble around constantly in her head, but she cannot utter them aloud. Words become traps, holes through which to plunge into psychosis:

Hen fasdad o air ydy ‘Pam?’. Am i fod o’n gwybod nad oes ʼna ʼrochor arall iddo fo. Mond nos. Uffar o nos. Ac ‘AM BYTH’ yn cyfarth tu mewn iddi hi.

‘Why’ is an old bastard of a word. Because it knows there is no other side to it. Just night. Hellish night. And ‘FOREVER’ barking inside her.

When Glenda sits rigidly in her chair, it is as though her petrified suffering marks the beginning of how she asserts her ‘complete identity’, a rebellion which brings a torrent of ‘whys’ and proposed reasons for her ‘depression’ from others. The only way she can control the effects of her own thoughts and responses to the outside world is to shut down her exterior. Glenda finds recuperation worse than the illness itself because it is ‘mor uffernol o ddiamcan’ (so hellishly random). Out of her stillness connections begin to be formulated. The word in Welsh for the orchid her husband has given her, ‘Tegeirian’, works on her as if ‘there are two hands that could open a little place, a secret room, down, down inside me’. She begins to take a delight in words again. ‘Tegeirian’ becomes the name for her recovery. Naming becomes healing, and Glenda learns that she has to own her illness; she embraces the anarchy and demands that encompass recovery. Her family and friends are challenged to embrace those feelings too. It is a journey, to meet someone she hasn’t met properly yet, but who is dancing her way towards her.

All translations by Charmian Savill

    Anweledig will be performed at the following venues:
      21/03/2019, 10am, Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli
      26/03/2019, 12.30pm, Stiwt, Rhosllanerchrugog
      26/03/2019, 7.30pm, Stiwt, Rhosllanerchrugog *BSL*
      27/03/2019, 7.30pm, Stiwt, Rhosllanerchrugog

  • 1: Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis, from her Complete Plays, (Sarah Kane, Methuan Drama, 2001) p.227

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