Last weekend I weekend I went to the Royal Court Theatre to see the play Cypress Avenue, a play by David Ireland that was originally written in 2012. I was troubled by it on the night, and I have been troubled by it ever since. Massive spoilers ahead so if you are going to see this play don’t read on…
One of the things that is so fascinating about art and storytelling, in its many splendid forms, is that the meaning of stories comes not only from what the author writes down on the page (or more likely types on the keyboard), but also from what individual audience members bring with them when the watch/read/listen. This means that stories can always be viewed through multiple lenses, depending on the perspective of the viewer.
This play is set in Northern Ireland and told from the perspective of a Belfast Loyalist (according to the Royal Court website). I want to say right up front that this was a very funny play, and also a shocking play. Looking through the lens of politics, I think it has a lot to say about the legacy of the violence that characterised life in that part of the world for much of the last century, and the early part of this one.
However, what I bought with me to see this play is five years worth of experience in working in the mental health sector, alongside colleagues who live with mental health difficulties. Looking through that lens the play isn’t really that shocking at all. In fact there is a heart-sink, dreary inevitability of the finale when viewed through this lens. The plot involves a man, living with some unspoken trauma from the past, who goes mad and kills his entire family. We have seen this story, or variations of this story, again and again. It’s not new, and it doesn’t tell us anything helpful about mental health. I’m kind of sick of this story.
There are many, many people out there in the world who live with trauma and mental health difficulties, who do not go on the murder their whole family. There are so many people in this situation that you will know them, although you may not know that side of their story. There are many, many people who decide that the legacy of their trauma will not be more violence, and more trauma, but will be something positive and nurturing. They become involved with community groups or with activism, or with supporting other people. These individuals, bit by bit, step by step, slowly build up lives for themselves that are meaningful and sustaining. Where are their stories?
I don’t often see their stories on TV, or in the theatre, I guess because they are not ‘shocking’, or because white middle class reviewers won’t find them to be as ‘powerful’. That kind of slow progress doesn’t work so well as a dramatic device, I guess. But those are the stories we need to see and hear about mental health and trauma. Those are the stories that tell us something helpful about mental health. Those are the kind of stories that bring about a new kind of understanding.
Basically, we need better stories.
I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.