Content warnings: Discussion of suicide, self-harm, adult content, mild coarse language.
Co-directed by Amy Ingram and Catarina Hebbard, with dramaturgy by Katherine Marquet, SHE was a confronting and affecting sharing of women’s stories with a focus on mental health and mental illness. The work of three emerging writers – Bianca Saez, Karen Lee Roberts, and Nici Morey, with mentorship from Maxine Mellor – was interwoven with over 800 anonymous submissions to create a tapestry of raw storytelling that finished with a glow of hope.
SHE described experiences of mental health and mental illness in ways that were sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and often confronting, from anxiety, post-natal depression, and Tourette syndrome to involuntary treatment, suicidal ideation, and the long-term impacts of electroshock therapy. With the three writers speaking their own words in a voiceover and the performers reading out many more stories that were submitted, SHE didn’t overstate or overdramatise these experiences in the staging. Often, the stories were simply spoken, overlapping each other or punctuated by changes in movement, lighting, or sound.
The characters in the play – each one a real-life submission – were shown medicating themselves through approved prescriptions but also with food, alcohol and exercise. SHE made comparisons of mental health to physical health and brushed off unhelpful suggestions to “just relax”, go outside more, or get some exercise. Through the experiences that were shared onstage, the show emphasised the critical importance of appropriate and robust support systems, including both personal and professional support, and made note of the accessibility, or lack thereof, of the latter.
Set and costume design by Chloe Greaves used boxes of varying heights as the main stage setting, with the actors moving between them. There were some memorable moments in the stage design, such as a rattling of pills falling from the ceiling, or a handheld smoke machine used in a story about smoking in the courtyard of the mental health ward. Each performer had a short solo scene, dressed in pink, and these were often supported by the most dramatic stage design.
Sound design by Jessica Dunn accentuated the emotion and energy of the performance, and lighting design by Teegan Kranenburg was used as a signalling system, as well as to support and emphasise the onstage action. Colour was used as an indicator throughout, from the costuming to the changes in coloured lights that warned of triggers and distinguished the voices of the three writers.
Committed to accessibility, SHE included a sensory space that could be accessed during the performance as needed, and also a coloured lighting system that warned the audience of potential thematic or physical triggers, such as suicide and flashing lights. The performers began SHE with a candid introduction, explaining how the anonymous submissions had been collected, the lighting system, and the sensory space. Each seat in the audience also had a small care package including tissues and earplugs.
The staging of SHE, including choreography by Nerida Matthaei, required both high emotion and high energy, and the four performers – Aurora Liddle-Christie, Jessica Veurman, Morgan Maguire, and Rebecca Alexander – brought this to the stage.
SHE articulated experiences of mental illness in the words of those who have experienced it, but it was also about healing, grit, survival, and community. I was struck by the generosity in the sharing of these difficult stories, both by the actors and creatives curating them and by the anonymous women who had lived and submitted them. After the show had ended, people around me were wiping their eyes and exchanging long hugs.
Although the show went to some dark places it was curated with care, treating both the audience and the stories with respect. In the opening scene, Pandora’s box was full of woe; but as SHE drew to a close, it was also filled with hope.
SHE was performed at Metro Arts, West End, from 3 – 13 May 2023
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